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You’re sneezing, feeling congested, or a little run down… Is it a cold, or could it be that you are experiencing the symptoms of an allergy? Even if you have been diagnosed with an allergy and know what to expect, the symptoms of the common cold are so similar to the symptoms of an allergy that you can be left wondering whether you are coming down with a cold or allergy. This guide will help you learn more about the difference between these two common conditions and how you can treat them.


Cold or Allergy Symptoms

Allergy symptoms with a man holding a tissue to his nose

Both colds and allergies share many of the same symptoms. A cold or allergy can cause nasal symptoms such as sneezing, congestion, or a runny nose. A cold or allergy can also cause coughing or postnasal drip as excess mucus runs down the back of the throat. This is why it can be really hard to work out if you have a cold or allergy, especially when symptoms have only just begun or are mild. However, there are some differences to be aware of. Allergies can also cause rashes or itchy eyes, while colds do not typically cause these symptoms. Colds can cause fatigue, body aches, fever, and sore throat, while allergies are less likely to cause these symptoms.


Other Clues

Typical symtpoms according to the seasons

Working out whether you have a cold or allergy can also rely on other clues. The common cold is more likely to strike during the fall and winter months, whereas allergies are much more common in spring and summer when pollen levels are higher. The duration of the symptoms is important too and can be the key factor in deciding whether your symptoms were caused by a cold or allergy. Colds typically last around a week, whereas the symptoms of an allergy can hang around until either the cause (or trigger) of the allergy is removed or you treat the allergy with the correct antihistamine treatment.


Identifying a Cause

Different things in day to day life which may trigger allergies

A cold can only occur if you catch a cold virus. If you have had contact with someone else who has a cold, have been around other people, or coming into contact with shared surfaces, then it is possible that you could pick up a cold. If you haven’t been around anyone, this would suggest that your symptoms might be more likely to be caused by an allergy. To identify the cause of an allergy, think about anything new that you have come into contact with; are you using a new product? Is the pollen count high? Have you been outdoors? Identifying triggers for your allergies can be tricky, but keeping a diary of your symptoms and when they flare up can provide some really useful insight and help you identify a pattern.


How to Treat a Cold?

Man using nasal drops in work to help treat his cold or allergy symptoms

Your typical cold can be caused by several viruses, so the symptoms may vary slightly. Generally, when you have a cold, all you can do is to relieve the symptoms. The best way to reduce the length of time you feel ill is to rest and drink plenty of fluids. This allows for your body to put its energy into mounting a normal healthy immune response to the cold virus and fight it off, so you can get back to normal. If your symptoms are severe, you might consider using a decongestant (available as tablets, pills, or nasal sprays) to relieve congestion. Simple analgesics such as acetaminophen are useful for treating mild pain and reducing a fever. 


How to Treat an Allergy?

Antihistamines help to prevent an allergic reaction

Allergies are when your body reacts to something you encounter by releasing histamine, Histamines cause allergy symptoms. To treat an allergy, it is important to work out what the trigger for your allergic reaction is so that you can reduce your exposure as well as treating the symptoms. The trigger can be very obvious; if you get the same symptoms at a particular time of year, then it is likely that you have seasonal allergies. Triggers for allergies include pollen from trees, grass, or weeds (for more info, see the CDC on pollen here) as well as pet dander, dust mites, mold, and certain foods. You may be able to work out what the trigger is, or you may opt for allergy tests that can give you a clearer idea of what you are sensitive to. When you have identified a trigger or triggers, then you can reduce your exposure to them or be better prepared for the symptoms. This might mean avoiding dander from animals you are allergic to or taking antihistamines before exposure to pollen. Antihistamines work to prevent allergy symptoms by stopping histamine from being released. There are a number of different varieties that you can consider, and talking to a primary healthcare provider is the best way to establish which antihistamine will work for your allergy. You can also be prescribed nasal corticosteroids; these are sprays that help to reduce swelling and block the allergy response in the nose.


Feeling Better

Cold or Allergy symptoms can leave you feeling run down

A cold or allergy can leave you feeling run down. Getting lots of fluids and eating a healthy, well-balanced diet can help you to feel better and keep your immune system in good condition for when you encounter cold viruses. Good handwashing practice can help reduce the number of cold viruses you are exposed to as you go about your daily life. 

Allergy symptoms need careful management, so the best way forward is to get advice from someone who knows your medical history and can treat your symptoms in the best way for your individual needs. This will help you recognize triggers, make small but important changes to your home or lifestyle and get the right medication in place so that you have it when you need it. This can allow you to get on with life without having to worry about your allergies.

If you are suffering the symptoms from a cold or allergy and your they are severe or worrying, then it is always best to seek medical advice from a professional. Speak to your doctor or have a chat with your local pharmacist about the best course of action for your symptoms.