The warm weather we’ve all been waiting for is finally here! This means sunshine, blooming flowers and spending time outside with our loved ones. But, if you’re one of the many people who suffer from seasonal allergies, it also means sneezing, a runny nose and other bothersome symptoms. But, is all that coughing and sneezing due to an allergy or maybe a cold? Since both the common cold viruses and allergies can linger all year-round, worsen during certain periods of time and share similar symptoms, it can be hard to figure out exactly what’s happening when the sniffling begins. So, here’s some valuable information about the common symptoms of seasonal allergies and the cold and how to tell the difference between the confusing, overlapping symptoms, so you can respond appropriately. Is it seasonal allergies or a cold? It’s time to find out.
What are seasonal allergies?
Let’s start with the basics – seasonal allergies, also known as “hay fever”, are caused by the immune system’s overactive response to airborne pollen. While some allergy symptoms are nothing more than a nuisance, others affect the entire body and, if untreated, can develop into more serious problems as we age. The immune systems of people who are allergic to mold spores or pollen treat these particles (called allergens) as invaders and release chemicals, including histamine, into the bloodstream to defend against them. It is the release of these chemicals that causes allergy symptoms.
When do seasonal allergies appear?
Even though it’s possible to experience allergy symptoms all-year-round, seasonal allergies mostly happen during certain times of the year, usually when outdoor molds release their spores and trees, grasses and weeds release tiny pollen particles into the air to fertilize other plants. Different plants emit their pollen at different times of year. Depending on your allergy triggers and where you live, you may experience allergy symptoms during more than one season. But, if you usually develop a “cold” at the same time every year, seasonal allergies might be to blame.
Symptoms of seasonal allergies
Allergy symptoms, which usually last as long as a person is exposed to an allergen, can include:
- itchy nose and/or throat/ears
- itchy, watery, and/or red eyes (allergic conjunctivitis)
- nasal congestion
- clear, runny nose
What is a cold?
A cold, also known as “the common cold,” is caused by many different types of viruses, with rhinoviruses being the most common ones, attacking your respiratory tract. While the symptoms and severity may vary, colds generally share some of the same basic characteristics that resemble seasonal allergy symptoms. When one of these viruses gets into your body, thanks to contact with an infected person or a contaminated surface, your immune system fights back, just as it does when reacting to allergens.
Symptoms of a cold
Symptoms of a common cold usually appear 1-3 days after exposure to a cold-causing virus. Signs and symptoms of a cold, which can vary from person to person, might include:
- runny or stuffy nose
- sore throat
- body aches or a headache
Is it a cold or an allergy?
As the weather changes and the trees begin to spread their pollen, you may be wondering whether your respiratory symptoms are caused by allergies – or something else. While the common cold and seasonal allergies can cause similar symptoms, which is why people tend to get them mixed up, there are differences between these two conditions. The common cold is a contagious respiratory illness caused by hundreds of different viruses. Seasonal allergies are caused by the immune system’s overactive response to airborne pollen. Confusion is perfectly understandable, because a lot of the symptoms can overlap. Still, there is a way to distinguish between the two. The quicker you find out what it is, the sooner you can make interventions to feel better!
How to tell the difference between seasonal allergies and the common cold?
Are you suddenly coughing, noticing an unusual “tickle” in your throat, or dabbing at a runny nose? Your first thought might be that you caught a cold. But, it’s also allergy season – with budding trees, flowers and pollen in the air. Despite the similarities (like both being annoying), seasonal allergies and colds do have some differences. One way to tell what’s making you feel unwell is by paying attention to the symptoms that they don’t share. Here’s how to tell if you have a cold or seasonal allergy.
Similar symptoms of allergies and colds
Many symptoms of seasonal allergies can overlap with the common cold symptoms, which is why it can be so troubling. Both conditions can cause:
- congestion (stuffy nose)
- runny nose
- sore throat
- fatigue and weakness
While a cough is a common symptom of both seasonal allergies and colds, a cough related to an “itch” or “tickle” in your throat is most likely due to seasonal allergies. Itchy eyes or sneezing are another sign that you are most likely suffering from seasonal allergies. Itchiness is usually not a sign of illness.
Differences between cold and allergy symptoms
If you’re wondering how to distinguish the two – here’s 4 ways to tell if your symptoms are just a reaction to seasonal allergies, or a reason to call your doctor.
Fever is one of the biggest differentiators between seasonal allergies and a cold. More severe common colds can sometimes cause a fever – allergies, on the other hand, cannot.
Body aches and extreme fatigue
A quick onset of muscle and body aches, fatigue, exhaustion or weakness is unlikely with allergies. While allergies can make you feel tired, they do not cause extreme fatigue to the point where you can’t get out of bed and it is usually very gradual, not “hitting you like a ton of bricks”, as usually described by people suffering from a nasty cold.
Duration of symptoms
Colds and flu typically run their course within 5 to 10 days. Allergy symptoms may last several weeks to several months. Depending on what your seasonal allergies are attributed to affects how long your personal allergy may last. Cold viruses are present all year, so you can catch one at any time. However, the winter cold season is when getting sick is more likely.
Type of cough
While coughing is common for both seasonal allergies and colds, the type of cough for each is different. A cold cough is wet and hacking, and often produces mucus that gets progressively thicker, while allergy-related coughs usually feel like you have a tickle in your throat and nose, rarely causing a sore throat.
Are people with seasonal allergies more susceptible to colds?
There is no evidence that people with seasonal allergies are more prone to colds. While people with compromised immune systems are at higher risk of catching a cold, people with allergies don’t have a compromised immune system – their allergies are just an overreaction of the immune system. That said, people with some degree of asthma tend to be in a higher-risk group for viral infections. So this is a good time to review the way you are managing your allergies and asthma, if you have it, as well as making sure you take care of your health and boost your immune system, so it would fight back during these worrisome times.
Do I have allergies or a cold? How to know for sure
You can test for allergies at home by taking an over-the-counter antihistamine. Allergy symptoms will significantly improve within a couple of hours of taking allergy medication. On the other hand, cold symptoms do not improve with antihistamines.
With seasonal allergies, the symptoms tend to wax and wane and get worse when you are outside. With a viral infection, there’s typically a steady worsening.
At the end of the day, if you are unsure whether your symptoms are caused by seasonal allergies or a cold, then you should always err on the side of caution. Stay indoors, rest and contact your doctor, so you could get diagnosed and receive the appropriate treatment, whether you have seasonal allergies, the common cold, flu or another condition. Make sure you take care of your health properly!
Jack was born and educated in Ireland and U.K. He has a varied education, mostly in engineering projects. Since then he has worked with a number of major companies with interests in various parts of the world. His personal interests include athletics, cross country skiing and especially long distance running. Jack has competed in many running events and some at an international level, including many marathons. He has always had a keen interest in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. More recently he has specialized in the areas of health and supplements, with a special focus on the immune system.