The Differences and Similarities of Colds and Allergies
Why Its Important to Know the Difference
Colds and allergies have a number of overlapping symptoms, including runny nose, congestion, and cough. Given that these symptoms can indicate different issues that require different interventions, confusing one condition for another can prolong symptoms and reduce quality of life for an extended period of time. Understanding the different etiologies and other distinguishing features of colds and allergies can help increase the likelihood that the symptoms are accurately assessed and that optimal steps are taken to rid the patient of those symptoms.
The Cause of Colds Versus Allergies
Viruses cause colds. Once viruses invade the body, the immune system recognizes and attacks them. The process of immune response causes the symptoms that are associated with a cold. Like colds, allergy symptoms arise because of actions of the immune system. However, unlike with colds, the immune system’s role in allergies represents over-activity of the immune system. Specifically, the immune system mistakes an innocuous foreign substance as a harmful invader. In response, the immune system causes the body to release certain chemicals that it would also release upon an infection with a cold. For instance, histamine is released in both allergies and colds, which causes swelling in the nose, as well as coughing, and sneezing.
Because allergies represent the nature of one’s immune system, rather than the nature of what is coming into the body, allergies are not contagious. On the other hand, colds are easily transmitted from one person to another when a person with a cold transfers infected material – through things like a sneeze, cough, or handshake. Though this does not happen with allergies, having family members with allergies can increase one’s likelihood of developing them.
Distinguishing Between A Cold and An Allergy
Several overlapping symptoms of colds and allergies can make them difficult to distinguish. For example, a runny or stuffy nose is often associated with both colds and allergies, and each condition can lead to fatigue. Though fever is rare in both conditions, it does sometimes occur with colds but should never occur with allergies. A cough or a sore throat is more likely an indicator of a cold, though each can also occur with allergies. Better distinguishing characteristics are aches, which do not occur with allergies but can occur with a cold, and itchy, watery eyes, which often occur in allergies and rarely occur in colds.
In addition to the symptoms themselves, some other features of colds and allergies can be used to determine from which ailment one is suffering. The onset of symptoms can occur immediately in allergies once one is exposed to an allergen, whereas colds normally take a few days to occur after infection occurs. However, knowing when one was introduced to a virus can be difficult, so this difference in symptom onset is not always useful for identifying the cause of one’s symptoms. The time of year can provide a clue as to whether one is experiencing a cold or allergies, as colds are most frequent in the winter. Allergies can occur any time of year, but they are often specific to the time of year when specific allergens are in season.
One of the best indicators that one is suffering from allergies rather than a cold has to do with the duration of symptoms. Whereas cold symptoms last from a few days up to bout 2 weeks, allergies can last months and will likely persist as long as one is exposed to allergens. Thus, if symptoms exceed about 2 weeks, it is likely that those symptoms are associated with allergies rather than a cold. It is often at this point that patients realize that what they thought was a cold is actually a different type of immune reaction.
Preventing and Treating Colds and Allergies
Prevention in both colds and allergies involves avoiding the agent that causes the illness. For a cold, this means staying away from infected people and keeping your hands clean. Allergies are harder to avoid if one does not know what causes their allergies, but some allergens are common and cause more allergies in our population than others. For instance, pollen, dust mites, mold, animal dander, and cockroaches are among the substances most frequently associated with allergies.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for either colds or allergies, but there are specific medications that can help manage the symptoms. For colds, rest and consuming fluids can improve symptoms and help the body recover from the invading virus, whereas such healthy practices do not help one recover from allergies as long as allergens are present. Colds can also be treated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, which help reduce the most common symptoms of colds. Pain relievers can also be used to reduce aches that may be experienced during a cold.
Allergies are often treated with antihistamines, which prevent the histamine that the body releases in response to allergens from causing congestion. Decongestants help minimize swelling in the nasal passage, which can also be accomplished with nasal steroids. A doctor may decide to employ immunotherapy, which often involves allergy shots, to reduce one’s allergies over time. By injecting small amounts of the allergen, the body can get desensitized over time so that the immune system no longer overreacts to the presence of that allergen, and the symptoms of allergies are avoided.
By focusing on the specific experience one has during the presence of symptoms that resemble both colds and allergies, one may be able to determine which illness is occurring. Quicker recognition of the illness allows for better management of the underlying symptoms and quicker overall recovery from those symptoms.