Allergies and upper respiratory infections, such as the cold or flu, cause similar symptoms, often making it difficult to tell them apart. Symptoms common to allergies, cold and flu include runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, cough, sore throat, headache, and fatigue.
A good way to tell that your symptoms are due to an infection rather than allergies is the presence of a fever (i.e., temperature over 100.4º F) or body aches. These symptoms are common with the flu and are sometimes seen with a cold. Fever and body aches are never caused by allergies. Itchy and watery eyes are common with allergies but are rarely caused by cold or flu.
Duration of symptoms can also provide a clue to their cause. Allergy symptoms can last for several weeks or months, while cold and flu symptoms rarely last more than 2 weeks. Flu symptoms are usually more severe and last longer than cold symptoms.
In some cases, cold and flu can lead to potentially serious infections like bronchitis and pneumonia. You should see your doctor if you have persistent fever, breathing difficulty, or symptoms that last for more than 10-14 days.
The Differences Between Allergies and Infections
Despite causing similar symptoms, allergies and upper respiratory infections like cold and flu have very different causes. Allergies are due to overreaction of the immune system in response to usually harmless substances like pollen and pet dander. The overactive immune response leads to inflammation, which causes allergy symptoms. Some people are more likely to have an immune system overreaction and are therefore more likely to experience allergies.
Upper respiratory infections like cold and flu are caused by viruses that attack the respiratory system. The immune system has to fight hard to clear the virus from your body, and this leads to cold and flu symptoms.
Understanding the differences between allergies, cold and flu will help you choose the best treatment.
Allergy treatment includes antihistamines, nasal steroid sprays, decongestants, and avoiding allergens such as pollen, mold, and pet dander. If you frequently experience allergy symptoms, it is helpful to have allergy testing in order to determine what you are allergic to and help guide specific treatment. Those with severe allergies that are not controlled with typical medical management may benefit from allergy immunotherapy shots or drops, which decrease the body’s sensitivity to allergens and lead to long term control of allergies.
Cold and flu symptoms will typically resolve on their own and treatment is focused on reducing symptoms. Rest, hydration, and medication for pain and fever such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen are helpful. If taken early, antiviral medication like Tamiflu can shorten the duration of flu symptoms. Getting the flu vaccine every year can help to prevent the flu or decrease its severity if you do get it. There is currently no antiviral therapy available for the common cold.
If you think you have a cold or flu, you should wash your hands more frequently, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, disinfect surfaces you have touched, and avoid close contact with others to keep them from getting sick.
In summary, allergies, cold and flu cause similar symptoms, but there are ways to tell them apart. Understanding the differences will help you find the best treatment so you can feel better faster!
We Are Here to Help
The physicians at Capital Otolaryngology are experienced in the treatment and prevention of allergies. If you are suffering from allergies, call to schedule an appointment with one of our board-certified physicians today.