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Is it Allergies or Are You Sick?

You wake up one morning not feeling like yourself. You’re fatigued, 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, which can make people think they’re weathering a virus when they’re really suffering from allergies.

Every year, over 50 million Americans — about one in six — suffer from all types of different allergies, including indoor/outdoor allergies, insect, food and drug, and skin and eye. Yet Americans also contract around one billion colds per year; children can get up to 12 colds, while adults tend to average between two and four.

So, how do you know if it’s allergies or if you’re actually sick? Read on to learn how to tell the difference!


How Allergies Form and What To Do

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

Even if you never had allergies as a child or adolescent, you can still develop them anytime during adulthood. Experts aren’t certain what exactly triggers allergies, but they believe some reasons could be:

  • Exposure to allergens when the immune system is weakened, such as during an illness or pregnancy
  • Not being exposed to a high enough level of the allergen as a child, but reaching that threshold in adulthood
  • Moving to a new location with different flora, plants, and grasses
  • Higher concentrations of air pollutants in general
  • Increased additives in commercial foods

There are thousands of 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
  • Creams, lotions, or soaps
  • Household cleaning products or laundry detergents
  • Prescription or OTC drugs
  • Foods — in particular, peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, eggs, wheat, and soy

If you suspect you’ve developed an allergy, make an appointment with your doctor to perform an allergy test, which is done either on the skin or by drawing blood.

In a skin test, a sample of the suspected topical allergen (soap, lotion, plant, etc.) is applied to the arm or forearm. Then the patient waits up to 24 hours to see if a reaction occurs. A blood test is more comprehensive and can help detect allergies to molds, dust mites, animal dander, insect bites and stings, and foods.

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 these 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
  • High pollen levels: The highest concentration of released pollen happens early in the morning and travels best on warm, dry, breezy days. Periods of extreme heat and Santa Ana conditions increase pollen concentration and distance traveled


Cold Viruses And How They’re Contracted

Although we usually refer to a cold in the singular form — “the common cold” — colds are actually caused by more than 200 different rhinoviruses and coronaviruses.

Since so many viruses can cause a cold, it is entirely possible to have several colds in quick succession, as a different virus causes each one. 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.

Even the strongest immune systems are not perfect, and it’s inevitable that you’ll contract a cold at least once in a while. However, there are some precautions you can take to significantly lower your risk of getting infected:

  • Use a tissue or handkerchief when you sneeze or cough
  • Don’t touch your nose, mouth, or eyes unless you’ve just washed your hands  
  • Avoid close contact with people who have colds
  • Eat plenty of vitamin-rich fruit and vegetables to boost your immune system
  • Wash your hands regularly and thoroughly, as cold viruses are almost always transmitted by touch — not through bodily fluids, like saliva
  • Keep all kitchen and bathroom surfaces in your home disinfected
  • Sleep at least seven hours per night
  • Drink plenty of water every day, as it flushes out toxins


So, Is It An Allergy or a Cold?

There is some crossover in the symptoms of both allergies and colds. But there are also a few distinct differences between the two that will help you determine which one is plaguing you:

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


Be sure to read more Scripps Affiliated Medical Groups articles, which have the answers to all of your most common health care questions!

CATEGORIES: Disease & DiagnosisParentingSeniors & Caregivers


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