3 Ways to Tell Whether You Have Allergies or a Cold

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It happens to everyone sooner or later. You're either too congested to breathe or you have to plug your nose with tissues while sleeping to avoid dripping onto your pillow. It's not serious enough to see a doctor, but you're not exactly sure what you're up against. Is it a cold or just allergies?

The common cold is caused by viruses, while allergy attacks are the body's response to a foreign (albeit usually harmless) substance. Despite their differences, the two ailments can cause remarkably similar symptoms—but luckily there are a few ways to tell them apart, according to several physicians who spoke with U.S. News & World Report.

The first step, naturally, is to check your symptoms. If you have particular symptoms other than sneezing and a stuffy or runny nose, you probably have a cold or an infection. The most common symptoms associated with colds are a sore throat, fever, muscle aches, and yellow mucus. Alternatively, itchy or swollen eyes and fatigue are more commonly associated with allergies. The Mayo Clinic has a helpful chart comparing allergies and cold symptoms.

If you're still uncertain, you may want to consider whether you've had any recent exposure to common allergy triggers, such as pollen, animal hair, dust, mold, and certain foods and medications. If you're prone to allergies, you'd probably start to feel ill immediately after coming into contact with the source.

"Cutting grass, standing at the soccer complex or riding with the windows down [can all expose you to allergens]," Dr. Jeremy Allen, of Birmingham, Alabama, tells U.S. News & World Report.

Allen says you should also consider the time of year. If the weather has changed for the better, you are likely experiencing allergy flare-ups caused by tree or grass pollen. In some parts of the U.S., the spring allergy season begins in February and lasts until early summer, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. A particularly rainy spring can cause more mold growth, triggering allergies well into fall.

When it comes to allergies, prevention is one of the best steps you can take. Mother Nature Network recommends avoiding the outdoors between the hours of 5 a.m. and 10 a.m., when pollen counts are the highest. But if you must go outside, be sure to don sunglasses to protect your eyes, keep your car windows up, and cover your mouth and nose, if possible. A dab of Vaseline inside each nostril will help to stop that pesky pollen in its tracks.

If it's too late for prevention, you may find yourself at the pharmacy wondering whether you should buy an antihistamine or a decongestant. Fortunately, even if you misdiagnose your condition and take the "wrong" over-the-counter drug, it may end up helping you anyway. Antihistamines like Benadryl, Claritin, and Zyrtec will help stop your nose from running (and save you some money on tissues), while nasal sprays and decongestants will tackle stuffiness—regardless of whether it's a cold or allergies that are plaguing you. Other allergy medicines may prove ineffective if you have a cold, but they're not unsafe to take, Dr. Clifford Bassett tells U.S. News & World Report.

Both a cold and allergies can lead to sinus infections—colds turn into infections about 10 percent of the time, according to Bassett—so it's wise to seek treatment if your symptoms persist or worsen after a week.

[h/t U.S. News and World Report]