The Difference Between a Cold and Allergies and How to Treat Both

Jose Topacio

Woman having a cold

Because they’re both common afflictions and share plenty of symptoms, an allergy and a cold often get confused for one or the other. Fortunately, both are treatable at home. In fact, you can easily buy over-the-counter medicines from an online drugstore. However, you first have to know the difference between the two conditions so you know what kind of treatment you need.

Here are some things to keep in mind to help you identify and treat either or both an allergy and a cold:

What Is an Allergy?

An allergy is a condition in which the immune system overreacts to fight or get rid of something that isn’t really bad for the body. For example, pollen from plants and flowers isn’t really harmful. However, if you’re allergic to it, your immune system interprets pollen as an invader and releases histamine to protect the body.

Histamine is an organic compound produced mostly by white blood cells, particularly basophils and mast cells. It’s necessary for various physiological processes but, unfortunately, also causes plenty of symptoms associated with allergies like itching and sneezing.

What Is a Cold?

A cold is a contagious respiratory illness caused by more than 200 types of viruses. Most people will have about 2 to 3 colds per year; children may experience even more. Usually, you can get a cold by inhaling droplets in the air or by touching surfaces with viral droplets and then bringing your hand to your face, nose, or mouth. The latter is why one of the best ways to avoid a cold is to regularly wash your hands.

Some symptoms of a cold that are very much similar to an allergy include a runny or stuffy nose and sneezing.

What Is the Difference Between These Two Conditions?

One of the biggest differences between an allergy and a cold is that only one is contagious. An allergy is an immune response; it can be inherited from a parent, but it’s also possible for a child to develop an allergy even if their parent doesn’t. Meanwhile, because a cold is caused by a virus, it can be easily passed on to another person.

There are also a lot of differences when it comes to symptoms. For example, if your eyes are itchy and watery, you likely have an allergy and not a cold. On the other hand, a fever can sometimes accompany a cold but never an allergy (unless you also have an infection along with your allergy).

Additionally, if you have a sore throat and body aches, you most likely have a cold and not an allergy. You may also notice that the cooler months also bring about more cases of colds. This is because the viruses that cause colds linger in the air longer, so more people end up catching them. Meanwhile, allergies can happen at any time. As long as there’s a presence of an allergen, like pollen, pet dander, or mold, an allergy attack will usually follow.

Finally, a cold usually lasts for about 10 to 14 days while an allergy can disappear in just a few hours. As soon as the allergen is removed and the proper treatment is applied, allergy symptoms will fade. Do note that if your cold lasts for more than 14 days, it’s highly recommended to consult a doctor. It may not just be a cold you have, but rather another kind of infection. It’s also possible that you may develop complications due to a prolonged cold.

How Do You Treat an Allergy?

Treating an allergy requires two main actions: removing the allergens and addressing the symptoms. Common environmental allergens include dust, dust mites, pollen, animal dander, and mold.

To minimize exposure to environmental allergens, make sure to thoroughly clean and disinfect the objects and areas that you or any person with allergies stay in most frequently. Careful attention must be given to beddings, as these can harbor hundreds or even thousands of dust mites.

For those with food allergies, it’s better to eat meals that you prepared yourself. If you want to eat out, it’s helpful to have an allergy card with you; consider calling ahead, too, so that the staff is aware of your allergies and make accommodations.

Of course, you should always be prepared with your allergy medicine. There are a variety of antihistamines available, but your doctor may have a recommendation that’s most suited for your condition. For those with food allergies or with severe allergies, always keep your injectables with you wherever you go.

How Do You Treat a Cold?

The key thing to remember about a cold is that it’s viral. Thus, you cannot and should not treat it with antibiotics. What you can do is take medicine to manage the symptoms you have. If you have a blocked nose, take a decongestant. If you’re experiencing headaches, take a pain reliever. In the meantime, make sure to eat right and get some rest. The cold should go away in about a week or so, faster if your immune system is healthy.

It can be difficult to treat a condition if you don’t fully understand it. If you’re ever confused about an allergy and a cold, use this as a reference so you can address your condition accordingly.

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