Banner Health Services  

Colds vs. Allergies

David Engstrom  

David Engstrom, MD, is on staff at Banner Estrella Medical Center. 
Question:  I am sneezing and coughing.  How can I tell the difference between an allergy and a cold and what can I do to protect myself?

Answer:  Allergic rhinitis (Hay Fever) and an Upper Respiratory Infection (the common cold) can have very similar symptoms that can make them difficult to distinguish from each other. 

Allergy symptoms can include sneezing, itchy watery eyes, nasal congestion, sinus pressure, nasal discharge, postnasal drip, and cough.  Symptoms from allergies tend to occur at specific times each year or when exposed to certain substances (dust, pollen, animal dander, etc.).  They can last for weeks, months, or even year round in some cases.  Allergy symptoms typically do not include severe fatigue, body aches, or fever.

The most logical way to prevent allergies is to avoid those things known to make your symptoms worse.  Prescription and over-the-counter medications such as nasal steroids, oral antihistamines, or even nasal antihistamines can be helpful for prevention and treatment.  Specific skin or blood tests can be done to determine what one is allergic to and can be used to develop patient-specific injections to try to decrease sensitivity to certain allergens. 
The symptoms of an upper respiratory infection can include: sneezing, fever, nasal discharge, nasal congestion, sore throat, cough, sinus pressure, fatigue, and body aches. Colds occur more commonly during winter months but can occur year round. Symptoms are usually most severe during the first week and should start to improve after 10 days. Cold symptoms can last for up to two weeks in some cases.  Cold symptoms typically do not include high fever (102 or more) for several days, severe body aches, or difficulty breathing.

Regular hand washing or use of hand sanitizer products can reduce the spread of the germs that cause respiratory infections. Keep your immune system strong by exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, and getting plenty of sleep. Some studies have shown a small benefit from vitamin C. Other supplements such as vitamin E, Echinacea, or zinc do not have strong enough evidence to recommend their use for prevention of upper respiratory infections.

Page Last Modified: 02/22/2010
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