How to Tell Whether You Have a Cold or Allergies

Your nose is running, your throat is scratchy and you can’t stop sneezing. Here’s how to get to the bottom of it.

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Is it a cold or allergies?

Your nose is running, your throat is scratchy and you can’t stop sneezing. You’ve probably got a cold, right? Maybe not. Though fall is typically when outbreaks of the cold virus occur in Canada, it’s also the season for hay fever, known as seasonal allergic rhinitis or SAR, which causes similar symptoms.

Blame it on weed pollen (including ragweed, but not goldenrod), which triggers most flare-ups when it spreads between mid-August and mid-October. Outdoor mould (found in soil, especially near lakes, ponds and fallen leaves) can also be a culprit, says Dr. William Berger, a clinical professor in the division of allergy and immunology at the University of California, Irvine.

If you don’t see an allergist, it can be tough to know the real cause of your sniffles, even for long-time allergy sufferers. Here’s how to tell if you’re suffering from a cold or allergies.

If it’s a cold:

  • Symptoms last three to 14 days
  •  You may have body aches and a low fever
  • Nasal secretions may be yellow or green

If it’s allergies:

  • Symptoms last several weeks or months (many allergy sufferers have low-grade nasal congestion year-round, which gets worse in the fall and spring)
  • You won’t have a fever
  • Nasal secretions are clear

According to Brent Ruddock, a senior pharmacist at Can­ada’s Drug Information and Research Centre, you’re most likely to develop SAR if one or both of your parents suffer from it. If you have other allergies, such as allergic asthma, eczema or food allergies, that can also increase your risk.

Some naturopathic doctors, such as Toronto-based Natasha Turner, believe digestive problems and stress can cause immune system dysfunction, which makes SAR worse.

Do you think it’s allergies? Read more to find the best remedies for allergies.  And if you have a cold, read these 10 tips to help you recover from a cold, faster.

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Angela Serednicki

How to relieve allergy symptoms

Your first line of defence should be avoiding allergens. Try not to go outside before mid-morning or on dry, windy days when pollen counts are highest. Keep your windows and doors shut and don’t smoke, as it may make symptoms worse and any treatments less effective, says Ruddock.

Over-the-counter allergy treatments

Antihistamines block histamine, the inflammatory chemical released by the body in response to allergens. “They relieve a runny nose, sneezing, nasal itch and eye symptoms, but don’t have much effect on congestion,” says Ruddock. Look for second-generation formulas (such as Claritin or Reactine) with the ingredients cetirizine or loratadine listed on labels; most have no significant side effects, although you may feel slightly drowsy. (First-generation formulas, such as Benadryl, are more sedating.)

Combined antihistamine-decongestant products, such as Allegra-D or Tylenol Allergy, can address blocked sinuses, but may cause difficulty with urination, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and overactive thyroid symptoms. Use them cautiously if you have heart disease, high blood pressure, glaucoma or a thyroid condition.

Nasal spray decongestants such as Otrivin or Drixoral also provide relief, but can be addictive, so don’t use them for more than three to five days in a row. Cromolyn nose spray is another option, but according to Berger it isn’t very effective. (Prescription nasal corticosteroids are the drug of choice to decrease inflammation, says Berger.)

Natural allergy treatments

Removing potential food allergens from your diet (such as dairy, wheat, soy and corn) can reduce inflammation in your sinuses, ears and nasal cavities, resulting in less severe symptoms, says Turner. Some studies suggest that probiotic supplements (which replenish the healthy bacteria in your gut), vitamin C, quercetin and extracts from the herbs nettle and butterbur may relieve the symptoms of SAR.

“Sinus irrigation can be helpful as well,” says Turner. Using a Neti Pot (available in most health food stores and some pharmacies) to pour a saline solution through your nasal passages can clear away mucus and allergens.

Allergy shots

The only treatment that prevents SAR symptoms, allergy shots are administered following a test that determines your triggers. “The shots [comprised of the specific allergens you’re sensitive to] are usually given once or twice a week over three to four months, in increasing amounts until you develop a tolerance,” says Berger.

Maintenance doses may be required for another year or two, and results can last up to five years or longer. See your GP for a referral to an allergist or ENT (ear, nose, throat) specialist; all costs may not be covered by your provincial health plan.

Don’t ignore allergy symptoms

No matter how you treat your allergies, do something: Not treating a case of hay fever can lead to sinus and ear problems, and make asthma symptoms worse, explains Berger. “People with nasal allergies have difficulty concentrating, and one study even showed they have a lower quality of life than people who have hypertension or diabetes. So you need to make sure you take care of them.”

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