Allergies or a Cold? How to Tell the Difference

Cynthia Dermody

crumpled tissues
Flickr photo by stevendepolo

I've been sneezing all day. My throat is sore and sticky, my head hurts, and all I want to do is sleep. If this were January, I'd say I have a cold. But it's May ... peak allergy season (the reason it's Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month) ... so I think I have allergies. Although I'm not sure.

It's a common quandary this time of year -- the weather is still wacky, fluctuating between warm and chilly, so cold virus germs are still bouncing around. Yet we're also well into pollination season, sending seasonal allergies through the roof. And according to Mother Jones, allergies are getting worse than ever (some attribute this to global warming), so victims are suffering earlier and longer into the season.

Why do I care what I have? Because I want to take the right drugs.

Cold symptoms are best treated with decongestants and over-the-counter pain meds, while allergies respond to antihistamines, nasal steroids, and nasal antihistamines. Nasal steroids may also help out with a cold as they decrease nasal inflammation, according to allergist Marc Meth of Century City Allergy in Los Angeles and Cedars Sinai Medical Center/UCLA.

Here's how he told me I can tell the difference between a cold virus and allergies:

It's likely an allergy if ...

The symptoms are more itchy than painful -- throat, nose, eyes;

Nasal discharge is clear and watery as opposed to yellow or green, a sign of infection;

You feel better during the day. Allergy symptoms are worse in the morning or evening when pollen counts are highest;

It's between March and May or August and September -- peak time for allergens;

You feel worse when outdoors.

It's likely a cold if ...

You feel miserable all day, especially during the night;

Your symptoms come on gradually and worsen over several days;

It's October to February, peak cold virus season.

But the dead giveaway goes back to the drugs and what makes you feel better -- the antihistamine or the decongestant. I popped some pseudoephedrine hydrochloride, a long-acting decongestant, this morning and I almost feel human, so I've changed my vote. Oh joy of joys, I definitely have a cold.

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