How to Tell the Difference Between Allergies and Colds

How to Tell the Difference Between Allergies and Colds

For those who suffer from them, allergies are often the bane of their existence. The American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology defines allergies as a chronic condition involving an abnormal reaction to an ordinarily harmless substance. That substance is called an allergen, which can affect one person and not another.


Many people call allergies an autoimmune disease because of the way the body reacts to harmless substances. Allergies are similar to classic autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, and lupus. A different type of T-cell response is involved in those diseases, which also lead to tissue damage. The latter does not occur in allergies. Neither do allergy sufferers have a set of genes responsible for adverse responses like those of the diseases mentioned above, yet allergies and autoimmune conditions have a related response.


Who Can Develop Allergies?

Almost anyone can develop allergies during their lifetime, but most people develop them as a child. You are more likely to develop allergies if your family has a history of them. Adult-onset allergies are also common. As people age, their immune systems begin to weaken, which is one reason why some adults unexpectedly develop allergies. People who develop allergies as adults may have experienced slight symptoms throughout their lives and never noticed them. Usually, an event such as getting a new job, moving, or buying a new pet will trigger your immune system to respond.


Types of Allergies

Allergies can be seasonal or year-round, depending on the type of allergy one has. Some are also life-long problems.


Pollen, Mold, and Pet Allergies

These are the most common types of allergies. Substances such as pollen, grass, weeds, trees are among the most common triggers, along with mold and mildew. Pollen and related allergens are responsible for seasonal allergic rhinitis, commonly referred to as hayfever. Mold and mildew are fungi that can occur indoors and outdoors, leading to year-round allergies. Sensitivity to pet fur and dander is also common. Note that there is no such thing as hypoallergenic breeds of cats or dogs.


Food Allergies

Food allergies are similar to nasal allergies in that the body’s immune system attacks a seemingly harmless substance, but their outcomes can be much more severe. The most common food allergies in the United States are milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish. People who have hay fever or eczema are more likely to develop food allergies. All food allergies are potentially life-threatening and should have their condition evaluated by an allergist. Symptoms can range from mild to severe, with some people only suffering mild abdominal pain, while others have the potential to develop hives or progress to severe anaphylaxis with low blood pressure and loss of consciousness. As there is no cure for food allergies, those who have them must avoid those foods.


Insect Allergies

Insects such as bees, wasps, hornets, and fire ants can cause an allergic reaction to their stings. Even insects that don’t sting, like cockroaches and dust mites, can cause allergic reactions because of their very presence.


Latex Allergies

Latex allergies are a reaction to natural rubber latex, found in balloons, gloves, and other natural rubber products. This allergy can also be a big health risk.


Drug Allergies

True allergies to medicines occur only in a small percentage of people. Most of what is considered drug allergies are simply side effects of medicines. Diagnosing the cause of drug reaction is based on patient history and symptoms. Skin testing for drug allergies is sometimes performed to confirm them.


What is Allergic Rhinitis?

Rhinitis means “inflammation of the nose.” the nose produces a fluid calls mucus, which is normally clear and thin, which helps to prevent dust, debris, and allergens out of the lungs. Mucus traps these unfavorable particles along with bacteria and viruses. Normally, mucus is almost always flowing, but you don’t notice it because the amount is small. More mucus flows when the nose becomes irritated. It can become thick and pale yellow and may flow from the front and back of the nose simultaneously. Substances in mucus can irritate the back of the throat and make it sore, sometimes causing coughing. The thick mucus that drains is called postnatal drip.


Irritants or allergens are called rhinitis. The body reacts to these irritants by releasing histamine and other chemicals that can make you feel miserable. Rhinitis is often temporary, clearing up on its own after several days. People with allergies often have chronic rhinitis, meaning that it’s always present or recurring often.


Types of Rhinitis


Seasonal allergic rhinitis

Commonly called hayfever, is an allergic reaction to pollen from trees, grasses, and weeds, particularly ragweed. This type occurs primarily in the spring and fall.


Allergens present all year long cause perennial allergenic rhinitis. The primary allergens involved in this type are mold, dust mites, animal dander, and cockroach debris.


Non-allergic rhinitis

Non-allergic rhinitis involves sensitivity to smoke, chemical, or other environmental particles. Physical defects of the nose, like a deviated septum, hormonal changes, and sometimes the overuse of nose sprays, can cause this type.

The common cold

Also known as upper respiratory infection (URI) is perhaps the most common type. Colds occur when a cold virus enters into the mucous membranes of the nose and sinus cavities, causing an infection.


What are the Differences Between Allergies and Colds?

Allergies and colds share many of the same symptoms as they both affect the respiratory system., which is why they are commonly confused. They also have distinct differences. Common symptoms include:

  1. Nasal congestion

  2. Runny nose

  3. Coughing

  4. Sneezing

  5. Post-nasal drip

  6. Fatigue and weakness

Allergies present several distinct characteristics. Whereas a cold will often reveal itself gradually, the onset of allergy symptoms is often sudden. Watery and itchy eyes usually accompany allergies. Symptoms may last several weeks and vary in their intensity, coming and going depending on the environment.


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, colds usually last seven to 10 days. Most adults have two to three colds per year. Fever and body aches can occur with colds, and those with weakened immune systems, such as the elderly, can develop infections like bronchitis or pneumonia. Also, viruses cause colds instead of miscues in the human immune system, which produces allergy symptoms. Rhinoviruses commonly cause colds are along with these other viruses:

  1. Respiratory syncytial virus

  2. Human parainfluenza viruses

  3. Adenovirus

  4. Common human coronaviruses

  5. human metapneumovirus

Cold symptoms decrease gradually in intensity after a week or two, while allergy symptoms will continue as long as the allergen is still in the air. Sometimes eczema may also occur with nasal allergy symptoms.


How Allergies are Treated

When someone has a cold, doctors generally recommend rest, drinking lots of fluids, and treating symptoms until they subside. If a cold lingers for more than ten days and symptoms keep worsening, you should seek medical treatment.

Treating allergies often encompasses a multi-step approach that involves trying to avoid allergens as much as possible, over-the-counter and prescription medicine options, and/or immunotherapy, generally called allergy shots. Your treatment involves the severity of your symptoms, along with the results of allergy tests and your overall medical history.

In addition to avoiding allergens as much as possible, allergists often recommend reducing symptoms to airborne allergens by washing out your nose daily through a nasal saline solution or with a Neti pot.


Many safe medications can relieve allergy symptoms. These include:

  1. Nasal corticosteroids or nose sprays, to reduce a swelling, itchy, runny, and stuffy nose

  2. Antihistamines to block histamine, which triggers allergic swelling and calm sneezing, itching, runny nose and help prevent hives

  3. Mast cell stabilizers to prevent histamine release

  4. Decongestants to reduce swollen nasal membranes and reduce stuffiness

  5. Corticosteroid creams or ointments to relieve itchiness and stop rashes

  6. Oral corticosteroids to reduce swelling and stop severe reactions

  7. Epinephrine, a self-injectable medicine required for life-threatening anaphylaxis

Anyone suffering from anaphylaxis should take self-injectable epinephrine and call 911 for additional help. Be careful with over-the-counter allergy medicines, as many are a blend of different medicines and may contain aspirin or other anti-inflammatory pain relievers. Consult your doctor before taking OTC medicines, especially if you have asthma.


Immunotherapy treatments come in two forms: shots and sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT). Patients with nasal allergies primarily get allergy shots as they do not work well for food allergies. These involve injections of allergens in increasing doses over time, rendering the patient progressively less sensitive to the allergen. SLIT involves given patients small doses of an allergen under the tongue. It’s safe and effective for allergies and asthma. Both therapies should always be administered under observation from a medical professional.


The Link Between Allergies and Asthma

Allergies and asthma often occur together because the same substances that trigger nasal allergies can also cause asthma symptoms. Instead of giving you a runny nose and similar symptoms, allergens can cause the classic airway restrictions that result in asthma. Most treatments will treat either nasal allergies or asthma, but some can help with both conditions. These include:

  1. Leukotriene modifier, a daily pill that helps control immune system chemicals released during an allergic reaction

  2. Immunotherapy shots

  3. Anti-immunoglobulin E (IgE) therapy to help prevent allergic reactions that trigger asthma

A family history of allergies is a major risk factor for the development of asthma. Asthma has other triggers involving exercise, infections, cold air, gastroesophageal reflux disease, or stress. Suffers often have more than one asthma trigger. Asthma and allergy symptoms can change over time, so patients must regularly consult with their doctors to adjust treatments.


How Centric Healthcare Can Help

Severe allergies can be difficult to manage, especially when symptoms make patients feel worse on top of other afflictions that they may have. As allergies can afflict children and adults alike, our healthcare team can provide a variety of services to help manage allergies in addition to other afflictions, including pediatric home nursing, senior home care, and other health care services. Our medication management services can help you, or your loved one, avoid difficulties and side effects when taking the allergy and other medications.

We are your premier home health care service for the Twin Cities area, Rochester, and surrounding Minnesota communities. Contact us today for a free evaluation.

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