Distinguishing Allergies from Colds: Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment

Wyndly Care Team
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Can you pass allergies to another person?

No, allergies cannot be passed from person to person like a cold or flu. They are not contagious. Allergies are individual immune system responses to certain substances. However, a genetic predisposition to developing allergies can be inherited from parents to their children.

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What Are Allergies?

Allergies are a type of immune system response to certain substances, called allergens, which are considered harmful by the body even if they aren't. Common allergens include pollen, dust mites, pet dander, and certain foods. Allergy symptoms can range from mild, like sneezing and itching, to severe, such as anaphylaxis.

Causes of Allergies

Allergies can be caused by both genetic and environmental factors. Genetics play a role, as the likelihood of developing allergies is higher if a parent or sibling has them (source). However, exposure to allergens at certain times when the immune system's defenses are lowered or during childhood can also trigger allergies. Furthermore, certain conditions like asthma can make individuals more susceptible to allergies.

Environmental allergens such as pollen, dust mites, and pet dander can cause allergic reactions. For example, pollen allergies, also known as hay fever, can cause sneezing, congestion, and a runny nose. On the other hand, certain foods, insect stings, and medications can also trigger allergies. It's important to note that allergies are not contagious, unlike infections caused by viruses or bacteria (source).

How Do Allergies Differ from Colds?

Allergies and colds present similar symptoms, making it difficult to distinguish between the two. However, the main difference lies in their cause and duration. Allergies occur as a reaction to allergens and can persist as long as you are exposed to the allergen, while colds are caused by viruses and usually resolve within one to two weeks.

Symptoms of Allergies

Allergy symptoms, particularly those related to hay fever, can include sneezing, congestion, a runny nose, and itchy eyes. In more severe cases, individuals may experience wheezing, shortness of breath, or anaphylaxis. Allergies can also induce coughing, and while it's a common misconception, allergies are unlikely to cause fevers. Symptoms can last for weeks or even months, depending on the duration of exposure to the allergen.

Symptoms of Colds

On the other hand, common cold symptoms usually include a runny or stuffy nose, sore throat, coughing, mild headaches, and fatigue. Unlike allergies, colds may also cause fevers and body aches. Symptoms usually appear one to three days after exposure to a cold virus and resolve within seven to ten days. Although cold symptoms can be similar to allergies, the presence of a fever can help distinguish a cold from an allergy.

How to Differentiate Between a Cold and an Allergy?

The key to differentiating between a cold and an allergy lies in the type, duration, and timing of symptoms. While both conditions can cause similar symptoms like sneezing and congestion, the presence of a fever, body aches, and the duration of symptoms can help distinguish between the two.

Signs of a Cold Versus Allergies

A cold often comes with symptoms like a low-grade fever, body aches, and sore throat, which are not typical in allergies. Allergies often cause congestion, but unlike colds, they may also trigger itchy eyes and nose. The duration of symptoms can also provide a clue: colds usually resolve within a week or two, while allergies can linger for weeks or even months, particularly in the case of chronic allergies.

Hayfever or Cold—How Can You Tell?

Hayfever, also known as allergic rhinitis, can be confused with a cold due to the similarity of symptoms. However, hayfever symptoms like sneezing, runny or stuffy nose, and itchy or watery eyes, are often triggered by environmental allergens such as pollen, dust mites, and mold. Moreover, if these symptoms persist across seasons, it could hint towards an allergic condition rather than a common cold. Remember, genetics can also play a role in your allergies, making you more susceptible if your family has a history of allergies.

How to Diagnose Allergies and Colds?

Diagnosing allergies and colds involves a careful review of symptoms, their duration, and possibly additional tests. While a physical exam and a thorough medical history are typically sufficient to diagnose a cold, allergies often require more specific testing.

Your healthcare provider may diagnose a cold based on your symptoms and their duration. Since colds are viral, they don't respond to antibiotics, and typically resolve on their own within a week or two. If your symptoms persist longer, it may be an indication of another condition such as an allergy or sinus infection.

For allergies, your healthcare provider may recommend an allergy test if your symptoms persist for longer periods, recur seasonally, or if they are severe. Two common types of allergy tests are skin prick tests and blood tests. These tests can help identify the specific allergens causing your symptoms and guide the best course of treatment.

What Are the Treatments for Allergies and Colds?

Treatments for allergies and colds depend on the severity of the condition and the specific symptoms present. Cold treatments focus on symptom relief, while allergy treatments aim to manage symptoms and reduce immune system reactions.

Management and Treatment

For colds, management primarily includes rest, hydration, and over-the-counter (OTC) medications for symptom relief such as decongestants and pain relievers. On the other hand, allergy treatment typically involves avoiding known allergens, using OTC or prescription medications like antihistamines and corticosteroids, and in some cases, undergoing immunotherapy.

Sublingual Immunotherapy

Sublingual immunotherapy is a treatment option for certain allergies. It involves placing a tablet containing the allergen under the tongue to boost the immune system's tolerance to the allergen over time. This treatment must be done under medical supervision and can significantly reduce allergy symptoms and the need for other medications.

How to Prevent Allergies and Colds?

Preventing allergies and colds primarily involves strengthening the immune system and reducing exposure to allergens and viruses. While it's not always possible to completely avoid these, certain strategies can help minimize the risk.

Firstly, maintaining a healthy lifestyle can boost your immune system. This includes eating a balanced diet, getting regular exercise, ensuring adequate sleep, and managing stress. For allergies, it's essential to keep your environment clean, limit outdoor activities during high pollen counts, and use air purifiers or dehumidifiers if necessary.

Secondly, hygiene plays a crucial role in preventing colds. Regular handwashing, avoiding close contact with individuals who have colds, and not touching your face can help reduce the risk of catching a cold. Vaccination against the flu can also offer protection since symptoms can often be confused with a common cold.

Live Allergy-Free with Wyndly

If you want long-term relief from your allergies, Wyndly can help. Our doctors will help you identify your allergy triggers and create a personalized treatment plan to get you the lifelong relief you deserve. Start by taking our quick online allergy assessment today!

Frequently Asked Questions

How can you tell if it's allergies or a cold?

Distinguishing between allergies and a cold can be tricky. However, colds usually include symptoms like sore throat and body aches, and generally resolve within a week. Allergies often cause itching (eyes, nose), can last for weeks or months, and recur in response to specific triggers.

Can you overcome allergies by exposure?

Yes, you can potentially overcome allergies through exposure, a process known as immunotherapy or allergy desensitization. This involves exposing the body to small amounts of the allergen over time, helping the immune system become less sensitive and reducing allergic response. However, this should be supervised by a healthcare professional.

Are allergies contagious?

No, allergies are not contagious. They are an individual response of the immune system to certain substances called allergens. Being around someone with allergies will not cause you to develop the same allergies, as they are not spread person-to-person like a virus or bacteria.

Should you stay home if you have allergies?

Whether to stay home or not depends on the severity of your allergy symptoms. If symptoms are mild and managed with medication, daily activities can typically be maintained. However, if symptoms are severe, affecting your comfort or ability to concentrate, staying home might be advisable.

Can medicine allergies be passed down?

While an individual's predisposition to developing allergies can be inherited, specific medicine allergies are not directly passed down from parents to their children. However, if both parents have allergies, the risk of their child developing some form of allergy increases.

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