Allergy or Cold. Which One Is It?
Although some of their symptoms are similar, colds and allergies are very different. A cold is usually the result of exposure to a virus such as rhinovirus, whereas an allergic reaction may be caused by exposure to dust, pet or insect dander, grasses or pollens, or other environmental allergens. As annoying as either of these may be to the sufferer, both may lead to allergic rhinitis (hay fever), nonallergic rhinitis (often less serious as it doesn’t engage the immune system) or rhinosinusitis, also known as sinusitis or a sinus infection, a far worse illness.
The best way to know the difference is by the normal duration of each. A cold generally lasts only several days; an allergic reaction will last as long as the exposure (days, weeks, months) but often abated by avoiding the allergen. If symptoms last longer than 10 to 14 days, or worsen after 7-10 days then rhinosinusitis may be suspected.
How the illness develops is also a good indicator as to which is which. Symptoms of a cold will often build, and spread throughout the home or workplace to others. Symptoms of allergy manifest very suddenly, may come and go, and allergic reactions are not contagious to others. Severity and duration of allergic rhinitis may be shortened or relieved by preventative exposure and treatment with antihistamines.
Normally, most colds develop as a sore throat, bouts of coughing, and nasal congestion which may lead to mild fever and body aches (the flu also). Allergic rhinitis is symptomatic in most sufferers as a runny or stuffed nose, watery or itchy eyes, sneezing and wheezing, but no fever. Rhinosinusitis develops as a high-pressure, painful headache; swelling of the eyes and cheeks; thick, coloured mucus; bad breath or bad tasting post-nasal drip; and the usual cold symptoms but lasting longer than 7 to 10 days and up to four weeks for acute sinusitis, or three months or longer in chronic sinusitis.
Now you know the difference, what can you do?
Cold – Get plenty of rest, drink plenty of fluids, eat chicken soup, and try your choice of over-the-counter cold and flu medicines to relieve the worst symptoms. Wipe down doorknobs and handles more frequently and avoid contact with others. Don’t be a hero and go to work which will surely spread the virus around, and pick another time to support your favourite charity’s Polar Bear Dip fundraiser to not worsen symptoms and cause infection. Remember, a cold is contagious so cover your mouth when you cough and wash your hands frequently to reduce contamination to others. Binge-watching your favourite TV show is optional. Symptoms should clear within a week.
Allergy – If you have not already, your first step is to consult your primary healthcare provider for a referral to an allergist to be tested, then stay away from your allergens to reduce symptoms. Especially at times of seasonal change, do a deep, thorough house-cleaning. Bedding should be laundered in a long, hot wash to get rid of dust mites and dander. Separate clothes that may have been exposed to allergens and wash in hot water. Consult with your physician to create an action plan for preventative and treatment strategies for allergies that may include sublingual or subcutaneous immunotherapy prescribed by an allergist.
Rhinosinusitis – The pain and pressure around the eyes, nose and forehead are telltale signs of sinusitis due to swelling and poor drainage of mucus. People with allergies are more likely to suffer sinus problems such as sinusitis. Often caused by the same rhinoviruses contributing to a cold or flu, sinus infections may be resolved in as little as two weeks without antibiotics. Acute sinusitis will often last less than four weeks but may develop from a cold virus, leading to a bacterial infection. Chronic sinusitis will last three months or longer. For any case of sinusitis, one should be assessed by an allergist or physician to determine the appropriate treatment protocol.
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(Created with resources from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.)