Cold Symptoms vs. Allergy Symptoms: What Do I Have?

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With the change of seasons, you may experience symptoms like a sore throat or sneezing that could be either the common cold or an allergy. The symptoms of a cold and symptoms of seasonal allergies can be similar and often difficult to distinguish. So how do you know which one you have?

How to Tell If You Have Cold Symptoms

While the common cold can strike at any time, it’s more common during the fall and winter months. A cold is caused by a virus, not seasonal irritants, and cold symptoms typically develop within 48 hours of exposure.

The most common symptoms of the common cold include:

  • Runny nose (rhinorrhea),
  • Sneezing,
  • Sore throat, 
  • Cough.

Less common symptoms include:

  • Headache,
  • Sinus congestion and pain,
  • Muscle aches,
  • Fatigue,
  • Fever (particularly in children),
  • Sputum production.

Once cold symptoms set in, it can take anywhere from three days to three weeks to fully recover. Your recovery time can depend on your age, stress level, immune system status, and lifestyle factors like your diet and how well you sleep.

Combatting the Common Cold Naturally

The common cold usually resolves on its own, particularly if you’re well hydrated, nourished, and rested. But as you try to relieve your cold symptoms, some natural remedies may help speed up the process. These include:

  • Vitamin C,
  • Zinc,
  • Elderberry,
  • Licorice root,
  • Astragalus,
  • Osha root,
  • Olive leaf,
  • Thymus extract,
  • Warm teas containing ginger, garlic, honey, and lemon.

You may need to seek medical attention if after three weeks you still feel ill, or are experiencing a persistent cough, fever, and fatigue, to rule out pneumonia or other infections. Otherwise, the common cold is self-resolving, particularly if you’re well rested, hydrated, and nourished.

Now, you may be asking yourself how the common cold is different than the flu? The simple answer is that the flu is more intense than the common cold where you’re exhausted, achy, and unable to get out of bed. Typically, with a cold, you can generally function in your day-to-day activities.

If It’s Not a Cold, Could It Be Seasonal Allergies?

Unlike the common cold, allergies are not caused by viruses. Instead, they are triggered by environmental irritants like pollens, grasses, pet dander, mold, food, and insects. These allergens activate the immune system and trigger chemicals like histamines to be released. Until the irritant is removed, the body will react by causing allergy symptoms.

Seasonal allergy symptoms often occur during the spring, summer, and fall months in response to blooming trees and grasses.

The most common symptoms of seasonal allergies include:

  • Sneezing, which tends to be frequent and rapid in succession,
  • Runny nose,
  • Watery eyes,
  • Itchy eyes, throat, nose, and ears.

Less common seasonal allergy symptoms may include:

  • Headache,
  • Cough and/or wheezing,
  • Skin rashes, which can sometimes be itchy.

Obviously, the best treatment for allergies is complete removal of the allergen.  Unfortunately, we cannot (nor would we want to) remove trees and grasses from our environment. But there are some natural remedies that may reduce the symptoms of seasonal allergies.

  • Nettle leaf,
  • Quercitin,
  • Vitamin C.

You can also use these allergy-relieving strategies to help combat symptoms:

  • Rinsing the sinuses daily with a NeilMed® rinse or neti pot. These devices are tremendously helpful for flushing out allergens from the sinuses.
  • Take frequent showers to wash off the pollens particularly before bed.
  • Invest in an air purifier to remove contaminants from your rooms.
  • Use dust mite covers for your bed.
  • Eliminate allergenic foods.

If these techniques don’t work, some people benefit from desensitization treatments like low-dose allergen therapy (LDA) or sublingual immunotherapy.

As a general rule, medical attention is not needed for seasonal allergy symptoms, unless the symptoms are so bad that you cannot function in your day-to-day activities, or you begin to have trouble breathing. In these situations, your doctor may prescribe antihistamine medications along with steroids to calm down the flair.

Dr. Drew Sinatra

Meet Dr. Drew Sinatra

Dr. Drew Sinatra is a board-certified naturopathic doctor and self-described “health detective” with a passion for promoting natural healing, wellness, and improving quality of life by addressing the root cause of illness in patients of all ages. His vibrant practice focuses on treating the whole person (mind, body, and spirit) and finding missed connections between symptoms and health issues that are often overlooked by conventional medicine.

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