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Allergies vs. Colds: What’s Causing Your Discomfort

June 29, 2017



photo of woman sneezing into a tissue, field in background

Matthew Hoffman, MD, chief of Pulmonology for Kaiser Permanente of Georgia, explains how to tell the difference between a cold virus and seasonal allergies.

The season for afternoon showers and blooming flowers may have passed, but the estimated 50 million allergy sufferers in the U.S. know that the sniffling, sneezing and watery eyes can span the spring, summer and fall months. How do you know if allergies are truly to blame for your respiratory woes, when many of the symptoms of the common cold are the same?

photo of Matthew Hoffman

Matthew Hoffman, MD

As chief of Pulmonology, I get a lot of questions from patients who want to know if they are dealing with a hard-to-kick cold or flare-up of seasonal allergies. I like to begin that conversation by explaining the underlying causes of both conditions.

Colds are a result of a patient contracting a virus, which can be as easy as touching a contaminated surface and then rubbing your eye. Once infected, the body’s immune system attempts to fight off the virus by releasing inflammatory chemicals such as histamine. It is the circulation of these chemicals throughout the body — not the cold virus itself — that triggers the cough, congestion, sore throat and other common cold symptoms.

Seasonal allergies or hay fever stem from an overactive immune system. The body can mistake harmless allergens, such as pet dander, pollen or dust for germs, prompting the immune system to launch an attack. Inflammatory chemicals are released into the bloodstream, causing the nasal congestion, sneezing, itchy and watery eyes, and other symptoms well-known to allergy sufferers. Though fever and body aches are associated with colds, they are not symptoms of an allergy.

Colds and seasonal allergies may feel a lot alike, but the duration of their symptoms is a key differentiator. A cold virus typically runs its course within a couple of weeks, while allergies can linger on for months. A nagging cough in the dead of winter, when seasonal allergies are not prevalent, is most likely the result of a cold. If you start sneezing as soon as you step outdoors when the pollen count is high, you likely suffer from seasonal allergies.

Taking note of your symptoms, when they occur and how long you have had them will help your doctor determine the cause and the best treatment plan. While there is no cure for the common cold or seasonal allergies, there are several medications, including antihistamines and nasal steroids, that can provide relief and help you breathe a little easier.