Sniffing Out the Differences: Colds vs. Allergies


A visit with your doctor is the best way to determine whether you have a cold or an allergy. While allergy symptoms and cold symptoms are very similar, there are some signs to look for if you want to know the difference.

· Take a look at the color of your nasal discharge, mucous or saliva. Both allergies and colds cause a runny nose, but for cold-sufferers, the discharge is usually green or brown, which is a sign of an infection.

"If the mucous is clear, it is probably an allergy," says Dr. Carl Wurster, chair, Allied Health Department, at Brown Mackie College, in Boise, Idaho. The allergy comes from an allergen, while the cold indicates exposure to a virus.

· Allergy-sufferers do not generally have to deal with body pain, but if you have a headache and feel lots of aches and pains, it's probably a cold. If you have a viral cold, you'll also experience fatigue and a severe sore throat.

· Check your calendar and keep track of how long you've been sneezing or feeling sick. A cold can last up to two weeks. Allergies are often seasonal, especially if the trigger comes from grass or tree pollen.

· If your eyes, nose, throat or mouth itch, it's a sure bet that you are reacting to some kind of allergen, which can come from pollen or even an allergen in the workplace or on a college campus. If your allergy stems from something in your workplace, some industries have set up "clean rooms," where employees wear "clean suits" in highly sterile rooms. Some employees feel claustrophobic in clean rooms, but people with allergies tend to like it.

"With allergies, you will run a low-grade fever of 100.1 or 100.2. With the viral or bacterial cold your temperature will be a degree higher," explains Wurster.

Hay fever is the old term for allergies "because you get symptoms of a cold with a low-grade fever," says Wurster. The average person won't know whether their sickness is viral, bacterial or the result of an allergen.

"Allergy-sufferers should consider using anti-histamines at night," says Wurster. "A cold will not respond to an antihistamine."

Not being able to sleep at night is another sign of an allergy. "You should elevate yourself on a bunch of pillows to get the drainage of fluid out of your head to help you fall asleep," says the doc.

For cold-sufferers, the key is to visit your physician because you may need antibiotics. Try to avert getting a cold: "When it first starts, rinse your nose out with salt water four to five times a day. It can prevent a bacterial cold and treat sinus infections.

"For some people with allergies, mucous gets backed up in their sinuses which serves as fertile ground for bacterial culture. What could have been a two-to three-day allergy can turn into sinusitis, bronchitis or a cold which includes congestion and the risk of an upper-respiratory virus infection," says Wurster.

Just to be safe, he adds, "it's important to visit your doctor to see if your lungs are clear."


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