Do I have allergies or a cold?

Seasonal allergies can cause a number of symptoms like sneezing, coughing and itchy eyes, but they do not cause fever
April 16, 2019

In the spring time, many people fall sick with either the common cold or seasonal allergies, and many of those symptoms overlap. Cindy Weston, DNP, RN, FNP-BC, assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Nursing, gives you tips on how to decide if you have allergies or a cold. She says understanding the difference between allergy symptoms and cold symptoms will help you decide on treatment.

Do I have seasonal allergies? What are the symptoms of allergies?

“Many people refer to seasonal allergies as hay fever or allergic rhinitis. It commonly occurs during the spring time, roughly from February to early summer,” Weston said. “Tree pollen and grass pollen are two common causes of allergies.” Just because you were allergy-free last year, does not mean you will be this year.

Seasonal allergies are simple to diagnose, mainly because of the lack of certain symptoms commonly found with a common cold.

“Allergies will not give you a fever,” Weston said. “The biggest sign you have seasonal allergies is itchiness and irritation around the nose or eyes, but the symptoms should be present only as long as the allergens remain in the environment.” 

Common seasonal allergy symptoms include:

  • Sneezing
  • Runny, itchy nose
  • Red, watery and itchy eyes
  • Head, chest or nasal congestion
  • Cough

Seasonal allergies also may cause skin irritation like a rash or hives. “Allergic rashes are caused by allergens coming in direct contact with your skin,” Weston said. “So, if you are breathing in pollen or even touching pollen on your car, then seasonal allergies can absolutely cause a rash or hives.”

Many people wonder if seasonal allergies can cause nausea. Because allergies lead to sinus congestion, the resulting congestion in the inner ear can cause feelings of dizziness or nausea. Certain allergy medications may also cause nausea as well.

Can babies and toddlers get seasonal allergies?

Yes, babies and toddlers can develop allergies. Allergies can develop at any age. That being said, infants are less likely to develop seasonal allergies because they are often not exposed to enough environmental allergens. They are also often kept indoors and away from many environmental allergy triggers.

Also, seasonal allergies have a genetic component. Studies show 12 percent of children with no close relative with allergies will develop seasonal allergies. If one parent has allergies, then studies note the incidence rate of allergies in children rises to 30 to 50 percent. If both parents suffer than allergies, then studies show the chances of having an allergic child are 50 percent to 80 percent. If your baby or toddler is suffering from allergies, ask your primary care provider or pharmacist which over-the-counter medications are safe for young children.

Do I have a cold? What are the symptoms of a cold?

There are many different viruses that can lead to a common cold, and there is no cure. The only thing you can do for the common cold is treat your symptoms with over-the-counter medication, drink fluids and get plenty of rest.

“The common cold is complicated to treat and can’t be cured, but rest and nutrition seem to be the best approach,” Weston said. “You can take medications to treat the symptoms and make yourself more comfortable.”

A cold can have a variety of symptoms, but the most common include:

A cold usually goes away within a week and typically doesn’t warrant a trip to your health care provider. If you’re still feeling bad after a week, if your symptoms are severe or if you have an underlying chronic condition like asthma, then it might be time to seek help. The common cold can happen year-round, however it seems to be more common in the colder months when everyone migrates indoors and the virus is more communicable.

The primary difference between allergies and a cold

According to Weston, the primary difference between seasonal allergies and a cold is that a cold often manifests with a fever, and allergies do not. Seasonal allergies often manifest with itchy or irritated eyes and noses, and colds do not.

Many people think the long length of their symptoms suggest allergies over a cold, but this is not necessarily the case. “A cold can be very tricky because some of the symptoms may linger,” Weston said. “Sometimes your cold may be gone, but your cough could persist for another month.”

Seasonal allergies usually last the duration that the pollen or allergen is around for you to be exposed, which is usually the entire season. If a cough from a cold lasts for weeks, then the symptoms can get confusing.

The answer is simple and can be reached with a few simple questions. Do you have a fever? If yes, then you most likely do not have allergies. Do you have itchy eyes and nose? If yes, then you most likely have allergies. However, it is possible to simultaneously suffer from a cold and seasonal allergies. If you are confused or unsure of your symptoms, then call your primary care provider for more guidance.

Best medicine and treatment for allergies and a cold

A cold and seasonal allergies can be treated with over-the-counter medications, such as antihistamines or decongestants. Be sure to use the medications as described and contact your primary care provider or pharmacist to make sure you are not double-dosing.

If you are giving children allergy or cold medication, then make sure you confirm with your primary care provider or pharmacist the allergy medication is safe for children and closely follow the dosage instructions.

“If you think you might have a cold, then avoid spreading the germs to others. Colds are contagious,” Weston added. “You should stay home until you’ve been fever free for 24 hours.”

If your nasal congestion becomes overwhelming, rinsing your sinuses with a nasal irrigation pot can help remove allergens and prevent infection in your sinuses. “Nasal irrigation systems can work to help prevent infection in your sinuses,” Weston said. “Just be sure that you’re using it as directed and with bottled or previously-boiled water.”

Be sure to contact your primary care provider if your fever does not go away, or if you have trouble breathing or keeping food or fluids down. Although complications are rare, they are a possibility and should be caught early. Similarly, colds and allergies can trigger asthma, so getting an early grasp on them is important.

— Mary Leigh Meyer

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