Over the years I have had more than my fair share of colds – or at least I think I have. Given that I have also been afflicted with year round nasal allergies (perennial allergic rhinitis), which seemingly strike at random, I am often left scratching my head (and blowing my nose) as to whether something has set my allergy off or I have a case of the common cold.
What are colds and allergies?
The symptoms of colds and nasal allergies are both the result of the actions of our immune system. However, in the case of a cold the immune system is fighting off an invading virus whilst in an allergy the immune system sees something harmless, such as pollen, as a threat and over-reacts. This generally takes the form of releasing chemicals called histamines to help fight off the threat but instead results in the allergy symptoms.
There are actually more than 100 different viruses responsible for the common cold which goes some way to explaining why some colds are worse than others. Unlike an allergy a cold can be passed on from person to person.
The name “cold” is a little misleading as whilst they tend to be more common in the winter months they still occur throughout the year.
Whilst the average person catches two to three colds per year there is more bad news for allergy sufferers – they are more likely to catch a cold.
Now, both are fairly miserable experiences but it is worth knowing which you have before you go running to the medicine cabinet. Treating a common cold requires taking it easy, maybe a couple of painkillers and some decongestants. Please note that antibiotics won’t help fight a cold as it is a virus, not a bacterial infection.
An allergy, on the other hand, will usually respond best to an over the counter antihistamine which will be of virtually no help for a head cold. The only common ground here are decongestants which may benefit both.
Also, in the case of allergies, whilst there is no cure, avoiding the cause is the best solution, where possible.
Cold vs Allergy : Symptom checklist
|Nasal discharge||Clear & watery||Thick, often colored|
|General aches & pains||Sometimes||Never|
|Duration of illness||3 to 14 days||Varies|
|Is it contagious?||Yes, very||No|
As you can see, whilst there are quite a few superficial similarities between allergy and common cold symptoms there are also some notable differences.
Of course it is possible that you could have neither a cold or an allergy and you may be suffering from sinusitis for instance. If you are in any way concerned about your symptoms and / or they do not seem to be going a way you should visit your doctor.