Cold or Allergies?

It can be tough to tell sometimes. But relief is here, and it doesn’t include antibiotics.
Black woman with allergies sneezes into tissue

By April, we’re all typically yearning for spring and its longer, warmer days. And then we get a late snowstorm, and all hope seems lost.

It’s the same with winter ills: Upper respiratory infections are unfortunately still making the rounds (and rounds) in our area. It’s only natural that people start asking whether they should be on an antibiotic.

In most cases, the answer is no, especially now. Just as one week can be the difference between winter snow and spring crocuses, your upper respiratory symptoms may well be a cold – or seasonal allergies.

What's the Difference Between a Cold and Allergies?

Natasha Withers, DO, a family physician at the University of Vermont Health Network – Porter Medical Center, says the length of time you’re suffering can help you differentiate between an upper respiratory infection and allergies.

Upper respiratory infection symptoms typically last five to 10 days, while allergy symptoms can go on for longer. Upper respiratory infection and cold symptoms may include a fever, but seasonal allergies don’t.

“Another distinction is that if symptoms continue for two to three weeks and haven’t gotten worse or better, it’s likely allergy-related,” Withers says.

Antibiotics for Cold or Allergies?

Antibiotics don’t work on viruses – and viruses cause most upper respiratory infections and colds. Nor do antibiotics work on allergies.

So what does work for symptom relief?

For people with runny noses or sinus pressure, Withers suggests sinus rinsing, or nasal irrigation. Sinus problems happen when the nose’s mucosal lining becomes inflamed, increasing mucus production and blocking drainage pathways. By moving a saline solution through your nasal passages, you can get rid of the mucus and allergens which can relieve symptoms.

Saline solutions come in over-the-counter packaging, or they can be homemade. If you want to make a saline solution, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology suggests this recipe using iodine-free salt, baking soda, and lukewarm distilled or boiled water.

Dr. Withers also recommends using a neti pot, which pushes water through one nostril and out the other, easily and painlessly.

“A neti pot gets into the deep sinuses and allows the mucus to come out with the rinse, rather than rolling down the back of the throat or sitting in the sinuses,” explains Dr. Withers. She also stresses that that it’s important to use either distilled water or boiled water that has cooled to ensure that it’s sterile and doesn’t contain anything harmful.

Other common pain-relieving options for colds include acetaminophen or ibuprofen, or over-the-counter throat-numbing spray.

To relieve allergy symptoms, try an over-the-counter antihistamine, available in pill form, chewable tablets, capsules, liquids, nasal sprays and eye drops.

Local honey is also a natural seasonal allergy remedy that might help. When you eat local honey, the theory goes, you are ingesting local pollen. Eventually, you might become less sensitive to this pollen and your allergies might diminish. And if it’s a cold, honey can always help sooth your throat!

When Allergies Are Bad, Nip Them in the Bud

If you’ve decided your sinus misery is due to allergies and want to identify the culprit, consult an allergist or immunologist for a skin test.

A skin test involves gently pricking your skin with a panel of allergens such as pollen, dust mites, pet dander, certain foods and insect venom.

If the test reveals a particular allergy, you can opt for allergy shots. These are regular injections you’ll receive over three to five years to help stop or reduce allergy attacks.

“It’s a big commitment,” Dr. Withers says. “But for some people, allergy shots are worth it because allergies are something they can’t avoid, and allergy symptoms make them feel miserable.”

Regardless of whether you have a cold or seasonal allergies, the good news is that by early summer, you should feel some relief. At least until ragweed season starts in August.

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