Cold or Allergies? Know How To Tell The Difference
The snow has melted, temperatures are warming and leaves are popping. Just when all seems well, your eyes water, you become congested and can't stop sneezing. If it's the result of seasonal allergies, you should take an anti-histamine. But if it's a cold, you'll need a decongestant.
How can you tell the difference?
The symptoms of a cold may seem indistinguishable from those of allergies, but there are minor differences. The symptoms of a cold will usually come on in a specific order: sneezing, runny nose, and then congestion and possibly fever. The mucus of a cold is usually yellow or green due to an infection. Also, a cold will usually last no longer than two weeks and occurs most often in the winter.
Allergy symptoms, in contrast, tend to appear all at once and can continue as long as the allergen is around (which can be months for people with pollen or mold allergies). Because an allergic reaction isn't the result of an infection, mucus is clear and watery. In addition, fevers are rare in allergic reactions.
How Colds Work
Colds are the result of a viral infection, the most popular culprit of which is the rhinovirus - however, there are others. In response to the infection, your immune system tells the cells lining your nasal passages to secrete a thick, sticky mucus in order to trap the invading organisms. It may also instruct your internal thermostat to turn up the heat. This increase in temperature helps your body in two ways: 1) allows your enzymes (little machines made of proteins) to function at a faster pace and 2) inhibits the replication of viruses (they like the cooler temperatures of the respiratory passages).
How Allergies Work
Allergies, on the other hand, are the result of an over-reactive immune system. Things like pollen grains and mold spores are generally harmless to the body and therefore most people don't react to them. But the immune systems of those with allergies see such inert particles as a threat and mount a violent attack to rid the body of the particles, often times harming the body in the process.
Although modern medicine has come a long way in the last century, there are still some viruses that we can't seem to contain. While vaccines will work for most viruses (measles, small pox, rubella), the rhinovirus is a particularly sneaky one that mutates often, preventing the development of a successful vaccine against it. Because vaccines are currently the only method we have to combat viruses, the only way we can treat a cold is to treat its symptoms, i.e. make having a cold less miserable. There are are the traditional cold treatments like decongestants and expectorants which can help relieve the build up of mucus that occurs during a cold, but young children shouldn't take them. There's natural treatments - the classic chicken noodle soup - but also buckwheat honey which recent studies show may actually OUT PREFORM decongestants and expectorants. Otherwise, lots of sleep and a box of tissues are the only things to combat the misery of a cold.
While allergies aren't caused by viruses, they are just as mysterious and difficult to treat. Because allergies are caused by the immune system over-reacting, the only way to cure allergies would be to know how the immune system develops this sensitivity in the first place. Unfortunately, such information remains hidden from the medical world. So instead, we must do whatever we can to treat the symptoms. This involves the use of antihistamines, leukotriene blockers, or mast cell stabilizers - all of which counter some aspect of the allergic response. Determining whether you have a cold or an allergy is easier said (or written) than done. But carefully examining the symptoms - which they are and when then occur - can help in diagnosing and treatment .