If you’ve got a runny nose that just won’t quit, you’re no doubt longing for relief. But before you can get better, you first have to know what’s wrong. And since colds and allergies share some of the same symptoms, it can be hard to figure out which one is ailing you.
Is it a cold or an allergy?
Both allergies and colds can cause symptoms such as nasal congestion and sniffles. Both conditions can also lead to sneezing, coughing and a sore throat.
But if you’re sneezing a lot, and if you have red, watery, itchy eyes, and your mucus is clear, an allergy is likely to blame. The same is true if you’re sick for longer than a couple of weeks. Since allergies are a reaction to a specific allergen - whether seasonal (such as pollen), or year-round (such as pet dander) - the symptoms can last as long as your exposure to that allergen.
Colds, on the other hand, typically last for three to 14 days. If you have yellow mucus and body aches, it’s probably a cold. Additionally, a cold can cause stronger cough and sore throat symptoms than allergies would.
Treating colds and allergies
Once you know what you’re dealing with, you can concentrate on treating yourself right with these remedies.
For both colds and allergies:
- "Water is your No. 1 defence against both colds and allergies," says Dr. Elizabeth Rocco, a family physician in Lawrence, Mass. "It keeps the mucus thin and moving, which not only unclogs the sinuses, but also helps prevent bacterial infections."
- Humidifiers, saline nasal drops or sprays and staying hydrated are the best ways to treat children who are too young to take medications, but they also all work well for adults. Nasal irrigation systems like Neti pots have also been proven effective for allergies and colds alike. Be sure to blow your nose regularly with a tissue to keep mucus moving.
- Take a decongestant to breathe more easily; it can help reduce inflammation in the mucus membranes.
- Relieve congestion and a runny nose with an antihistamine.
- Cough syrup, cough drops or a topical cough medicine you rub on your chest are all effective against a cough.
- If you have more than one symptom, take a multi-symptom medicine to relieve symptoms.
- To fight a sore throat, gargle with salt water or use sore throat lozenges or a sore throat spray. A pain reliever can also help.
- Nasal steroids reduce inflammation in your mucus membranes, relieving itchy, watery eyes as well as congestion.
- If you have recurrent allergies, you may want to consider allergy shots, which involve injections of small amounts of an allergen to build up your tolerance to it.
Finally, whenever you’re sick, try to do what you can to strengthen your immune system. In other words, get a lot of rest. Reduce stress.
Eat lots of fruits and vegetables, and yes, chicken soup too. (Studies show it relieves congestion).
“Doing these things may or may not make you feel better faster,” says Rocco, “but if you don’t do them, your immune system may suffer and you may be more likely to develop complications or catch something else.”
When to call in the antibiotics
Antibiotics only work against bacterial infections - and colds and allergies are neither. However, "both put you at risk for developing an ear or sinus infection within a few days to a couple of weeks after developing symptoms," says Rocco.
"When you have too much mucus clogging your sinuses, it can create an environment where bacteria can multiply and result in an infection."
How do you know if your sinuses have gotten infected? Here are some of the possible symptoms:
- Sinus pain
- Nasal congestion
- Yellowish or greenish mucus
- Postnasal drip
- Pressure when you lean forward
- Bad breath
- Sore throat
An ear infection, on the other hand, typically causes ear pain and sometimes yellow fluid draining from the ear, fever or a sore throat. If you think your sinuses or ear may be infected, see your doctor.
Sure, it can be tricky to know whether you’ve got a cold or an allergy. But figuring out what’s behind your symptoms means you can take the right steps to get well sooner