Allergies vs Cold: Is it Allergies or Are You Sick?

You wake up one morning not feeling like yourself. You’re tired, your nose is stuffed, and you’ve got a tickle in your throat that’s turning into a cough. Great, you’re getting sick. Or are you? Allergies often mimic symptoms of the common cold, so how do you know if it’s allergies or if you’re actually sick? Read on to learn how to tell the difference!

What Are Seasonal Allergies?

Allergies develop when your immune system mistakenly determines that a substance, such as pollen or certain plants, is harmful. These substances, called allergens, then stimulate your immune system to release chemicals to fight the allergen. Allergy symptoms are the side effects of releasing these chemicals into your body.

Even if you didn’t experience seasonal allergies as a child or adolescent, you can still develop them during adulthood. There are many allergens to which people can become susceptible, but the most common ones are:

  • Dust mites
  • Animal dander or saliva, especially from a cat or dog
  • Mold
  • Trees, plants, or pollen

San Diego-Specific Allergies

Every region in the world has allergens specific to its geographic location, and San Diego is no exception. Keep in mind the following times of year and their associated allergens to help determine if they might be triggering seasonal allergies for you:

  • Trees – March through June: Southern California trees typically pollinate during this time period. Check to see if you have any large concentrations of the following indigenous trees around your home or place of work: acacia, alder, ash, birch, cedar, cottonwood, cypress, elm, eucalyptus, maple, mesquite, mulberry, oak, olive, palm, pepper, pine, walnut, and willow
  • Grasses – May to August: Grasses in San Diego tend to bloom in late spring through the end of summer. Grasses that cause allergic reactions include Bermuda, timothy, Kentucky bluegrass, Johnson, June, orchard, meadow fescue and rye grass
  • Weeds – August to November: Allergy-inducing weeds that grow in San Diego during the fall include pigweed, Russian thistle, ragweed, sagebrush, mugwort, wingscale, goldenrod, nettle and marsh elder
  • High pollen levels: The highest concentration of released pollen happens early in the morning. Pollen travels best on warm, dry, and breezy days. Periods of extreme heat and Santa Ana conditions increase pollen concentration and distance traveled

What Is the Common Cold?

Although we usually refer to a cold in the singular form — “the common cold” — colds are actually caused by more than 200 different viruses. If you’ve ever gotten over a cold only to find yourself sick again almost immediately afterward, this is why. In general, most people can expect to fully recover from a cold in 10 days, with the worst of the symptoms diminishing after five days.

While we will all experience the common cold at some point in our lives, there are precautions you can take to lower your risk:

  • Use a tissue or cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough
  • Wash your hands regularly and thoroughly
  • Don’t touch your nose, mouth, or eyes unless you’ve just washed your hands  
  • Avoid close contact with people who have colds
  • Keep all kitchen and bathroom surfaces in your home disinfected
  • Sleep at least seven hours every night
  • Drink plenty of water every day, as it flushes out toxins
  • Eat plenty of vitamin-rich fruit and vegetables to help boost your immune system

So, Is It Allergies or a Cold?

While there is some crossover in the symptoms of both allergies and colds, there are a few distinct differences. 

  • Aches and Pains: Allergies never directly cause aches and pains. If you’re feeling sore and achy all over, a cold is to blame.
  • Cough: You can have a cough with both a cold and allergies, but it’s more likely to occur with a cold.
  • Fatigue and weakness: Feeling sluggish, weak, and tired can happen with both colds and allergies.
  • Fever: If you’re running a temperature, you can rest assured you have a cold. Allergies do not cause fevers.
  • Itchy, watery eyes: This symptom is nearly always attributed to allergies. It is extremely uncommon for a cold to cause itchiness of any kind.
  • Length of symptoms: Colds are almost always over within 10 days. If you find that you’re still sniffling for weeks, that’s a very strong sign that you’ve got allergies.
  • Look for patterns: You might find yourself “getting a cold” every fall and spring. By evaluating the above symptoms, ask yourself if that is really the case — you could simply have seasonal allergies that you never knew about!
  • Runny nose: Allergies and colds alike can have you blowing your nose all day long.
  • Sneezing: Both allergies and colds often bring on sneezing.
  • Sore throat: That burning, painful feeling when you swallow is the sign of a cold. Only in rare instances do allergies cause a sore throat.
  • Stuffy nose: If you can barely breathe through either nostril, that could be either a cold or allergies.
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