Despite both being nuisances, colds and allergies do have some differences.

It’s fall in North Texas. So, as you step outside and take in a deep breath of that noticeably warmer air, you’re not surprised that it may be followed almost immediately by a sneeze. North Texans know allergy season all too well. While the United States may be known as the “melting pot,” of the world, it may be safe to say North Texas is the melting pot of allergens. Heck, it was enough to run one former Dallas Observer food critic out of town in less than a year.

But what if it’s more than just your average case of allergies? That’s the mystifying part of allergies — the symptoms are just vague enough that they cross paths with many other ailments.

Know the Culprit

Allergies are caused by an overactive immune system that sends your body into defense mode when harmless substances, such as dust or pollen, are mistaken for germs. Your body releases chemicals known as histamines to attack the allergens, just as it does when fighting a cold. This can cause swelling in your nasal passages, a runny nose, coughing, sneezing and itchy, watery eyes.

Colds, on the other hand, are caused by hundreds of different viruses. When one of these viruses gets into your body ― thanks to contact with an infected person ― your immune system fights back. Some of the effects of the immune response are (you guessed it) nasal congestion, a runny nose, coughing and sneezing.

Cold or Allergy. What’s the Difference?

Despite both being nuisances, colds and allergies do have some differences. The most important difference is that colds usually don’t last longer than 14 days, and they may bring with them the added bonus of body aches, a fever and a sore throat. If you still have symptoms after two weeks, you should see your physician. These may be allergy symptoms or a sign of another problem.

“Allergies typically cause a lot of the upper respiratory symptoms like a cold, such as sneezing and congestion, but you’ll also have runny or itchy eyes and itchy skin,” says Todd Richwine, D.O., family medicine specialist and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Southwest Fort Worth and at Texas Health Family Care – Fort Worth, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice. “Those with allergies may feel tired, but typically don’t describe themselves as feeling sick. Colds and flu typically run their course within five to 10 days, where allergy symptoms can last as long as the person is exposed to what they are allergic to, often weeks to months.”

Prevention is Key

If you’re an allergy sufferer, now’s the time to arm yourself with an antihistamine, decongestant, saline nasal rinse or prescription nasal spray. It’s best to talk to your physician about the right treatment for you.

“Over-the-counter medicines are very helpful with allergies, both the oral antihistamines like Claritin and Allegra and the nasal steroid sprays like Flonase and Nasonex,” Richwine explains.

As for cold and flu risk, Richwine says the best medicine can’t be found in a pharmacy.

“The best ‘medicine’ hasn’t really changed much, which is to cover coughs and wash your hands frequently to not spread your illness to others, get lots of fluids and plenty of rest, and allow yourself the time to get well.”

If you try to stay healthy but still find yourself coming down with something, Richwine suggests Ibuprofen or Tylenol products to tackle aches and a fever, and decongestants and mucolytics to clear up congestion. Unfortunately, beyond that, Richwine says most other OTCs haven’t been found to help too much, which means you’ll have to ride it out.

Thankfully March marks the end of flu season, but that doesn’t mean sporadic cases may not linger for a while. And while the flu wasn’t particularly bad throughout almost the entire country this season, Richwine says he still recommends getting the flu vaccine if you haven’t yet.

“Most physicians in practice believe that even those who get the flu with a flu shot tend to have more mild symptoms, are at much less risk for the severe symptoms, and in general do better than those who do not get the vaccine,” he says. “A lot of people also don’t understand that you can get Flu A and Flu B during the same year, as they are different viruses, so there may be a reason to get a flu shot even if you have already had the flu.

“The most important thing to remember is not to panic or become overly worried, as both the flu and the common cold are very common and most people will get better on their own without any long-term complications.”

In need of a primary care physician or specialist? The Texas Health Find a Physician tool can help narrow down the right physician for you!

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