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4 Ways To tell If It's A Cold or Allergies

When you aren't feeling well it can be hard to distinguish what may be going on. You would do just about anything to shake the awful feeling that's dragging you down. But do you have allergies or is it a cold? This is a common question patients have because the symptoms can be similar, so many people confuse them. Knowing the difference between allergies and a cold can result in feeling better faster because you'll know what treatment to pursue.

Allergies are your body's immune system reacting to foreign substances such as mold, pollen or pet dander whereas your body's response to an infection that is caused by a virus is what we know to be a cold. A healthy body will have an immune reaction to both allergies and a cold, but the key difference is one immune response is fighting a virus while the other is not. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) adults can experience an average of 2-3 colds per year with most people recovering within 10 days. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) recently provided data showing allergies are the 6th leading cause of chronic illness in the United States with more than 50 million Americans experiencing various allergic reactions on an annual basis. Although you may feel like you're suffering from similar symptoms, there are 4 ways to tell the difference between allergies and a cold.

Color Of Your Mucus

What color is your mucus? Some of the other symptoms may be somewhat similar, however the color of your mucus will provide a definitive determination. If you have thick, yellow or green mucus you have a cold. The color change in mucus is a direct cellular response to an infection in your body. After your white blood cells rush to the rescue in defending your body from a viral infection, they die off and are discarded in the form of nasal discharge. It's rather unpleasant, but death and decay of the white blood cells is shown in the color change. A healthy body that is free of infection will not produce mucus that shows color. If your mucus is thin and clear, you have allergies.

Itchy, Watery Eyes.

Are you suffering from itchy or watery eyes? This is a tell-tale sign that you are having an allergic reaction. An allergic reaction will cause your mast cells to release histamine, which produces the symptom of itchy, watery eyes. When you are experiencing this, an over-the-counter antihistamine medicine might just be the relief you are seeking. Histamine is a neurotransmitter released from white blood cells when you are having an allergic reaction. During this reaction, small blood vessels become dilated, which produces swollen, leaky tissues. Speaking of tissues, you'll probably want to have some nearby until you can get your symptoms under control with an antihistamine.

Body Aches.

If your body aches, you have a cold. Your body's immune system will send white blood cells to fight the source of infection causing your muscles to feel stiff and achy. You've probably experienced muscle soreness in the days following a strenuous workout or lifting something heavy without bending your knees first; this is muscle pain that is felt in an area of your body. When you are experiencing widespread muscle ache (usually felt in arms, legs and back) your body is fighting a viral infection, and you have a cold. There is good news and bad news regarding this. The good news is that your body is fighting back; the bad news is that you feel absolutely awful.

Coughing or Sneezing.

A persistent cough is the result of a viral infection associated with post nasal drip. According to Norman H. Edelman, MD Chief Medical Officer of the American Lung Association, a frequent cough can last for a few weeks because a virus can cause your airways to become over-sensitive and swollen. If you have frequent coughing, your body is fighting a virus and you have a cold. However, if you are sneezing uncontrollably, your body is responding to a specific allergen such as mold, pollen, ragweed, or pet dander. If you are frequently hearing, "God bless you," from your family, friends and coworkers, you have allergies.

Sneezing is your body's direct rejection response to whatever allergen has just infiltrated your nasal passages. Neither coughing or sneezing is something to be enjoyed, however it's important to note that while you can get at least some immediate relief from allergies, a cold is a viral infection that you just need to wait out. If your symptoms become worse however, then it's time to call the doctor. Now that you can make a clear distinction between allergies and a cold, you can get the treatment you need to feel better faster.


American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI)
American Lung Association (ALA)
U.S. National Library of Medicine
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA)
WebMD, HealthLine, MedicalNewsToday