This is the age old question, but does it really make a difference what you call nasal problems? Allergies, otherwise known as allergic rhinitis (rhino-: nose; -itis: inflammation), and a “cold,” otherwise known as an upper respiratory infection (URI), have similar symptoms, so the treatment must be the same. This is not completely true. Some symptoms are the same, but there are differences. The cause for allergies and a cold is completely different. Some medications can be used for both conditions, but there are specific medications used for treating allergy that will not help a “cold.”
What causes allergies and a "cold"?
Allergy symptoms are a response from an overactive immune system. The immune system is the part of our body that protects us from harmful substances, like a virus that causes a “cold.” If you have allergies, you may have asked, why would my body react to harmless particles like pollen from plants or dander from a dog or cat? To date, no one really knows the complete answer, but what we do know is that tiny particles called allergens (pollen, dust mite, mold spores and animal dander) are responsible for triggering an immune response that is “not wanted” and has no protective value. With colds, the immune system is reacting to a virus, the microbe that causes a cold. In this case, the immune system has major benefits because the virus can do a lot of harm. One thing we know for sure, allergies are not contagious, but a cold certainly is!
What about symptoms. Aren’t they the same in allergies and a “cold”?
Well, you are half right. It is not uncommon to have runny nose, stuffy nose, sneeze and post nasal drip with both conditions, but there are other symptoms that help tell the difference. How fast the symptoms come on and how long they last can also differentiate allergies from a cold. Allergies can come on immediately upon contact with an allergen. A cold has a slower onset, with some mild symptoms that escalate, peak and then get better. Allergy symptoms may persist if the allergen continues to be in your environment, like a cat or dog, or if there is pollen lasting the entire spring or fall. A cold will last up to 10-14 days, where as allergies can be either short-lived or long-lived. If the allergen has been removed, allergies will be short-lived, but if the allergen persists in your home or outside, allergies will be long-lived. If a cold lasts beyond two weeks, consider seeing your physician, as it may be allergy, or the cold may have turned into a sinus infection, which requires antibiotics.
What other symptoms can help me know if it is allergy or a cold?
Allergies do not have associated fever and body aches, but fever may accompany a cold and many times there are body aches. Both conditions can cause fatigue. Sore throat can occur with allergy, but is much more common in a cold. As you can imagine, itchy eyes are definitely a sign of allergy and not of a cold. We tend to cough more with a cold, but you can cough with allergy, especially if you have been diagnosed with asthma (lung condition that consists of narrowing of the airways and making it difficult to breathe).
Finally, time of year may help you tell the difference. Colds tend to occur more often in the winter, but children may have them all year. Allergy can happen all year if there is an indoor allergen, otherwise allergy can be seasonal. Spring pollen is usually worse in March to July; fall pollen is most severe in late August to October; mold spores can be found outside throughout the growing season, March to November (pollen and outdoor mold exposure is dependent on the part of the country you are in).
So how does the treatment differ?
Colds are treated with analgesics for pain from sore throat and body aches and antipyretics for fever. Ask your doctor’s office or pharmacist what is right for you. Nasal symptoms can be treated with a decongestant and salt water rinse of the nose. Some anti-allergy medication may help dry up the runny nose, known as first generation antihistamines, but these are rarely used for allergy because they cause drowsiness. As far as allergy is concerned, over the counter second generation antihistamines are available, while topical steroids and prescription medications such as anti- leukotrienes can be used as well. Decongestants and salt water rinses suggested for colds may also be beneficial.
Is it allergies or a cold? They really are different, so observe your symptoms, time of onset, time of year, fever or body ache presence; after a week or two, if you still cannot tell the difference, seek care!