Monday Medical: Allergy or cold? Here’s how to tell |

Monday Medical: Allergy or cold? Here’s how to tell

Susan Cunningham/For Steamboat Pilot & Today

Dealing with sniffles and a sore throat this fall? You may have allergies. Then again, you may have a cold.

Below, Dr. Jon Hamilton, a family medicine physician in Steamboat Springs and a member of the medical staff at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, outlines what to know when it comes to fall allergies and the common cold.

Getting to the root cause

Allergies are caused by the immune system’s overreaction to a foreign substance, while colds are caused by viruses.

“Allergies are the body’s response to something it doesn’t like,” Hamilton said. “That can be pet dander, grasses, pollen, ragweed and other irritants.”

When you come in contact with an allergen, your immune system may mistakenly think the substance is dangerous and release histamines which help mount an attack and result in inflammation. The classic allergy symptoms are runny nose, itchy eyes and scratchy throat.

“The immune response is what makes people feel just kind of cruddy,” Hamilton said.

Common fall allergens in Colorado include ragweed, late-blooming plants and certain grasses. A late hay season and a moist fall that causes mold growth can also be an issue.

Colds, on the other hand, are caused by viruses and spread by sneezing and coughing. As the immune system fights off the cold, people experience the tell-tale cold symptoms: sinus pressure, low-grade fever, sore throat, drainage and muscle aches.

Telling the difference between allergies and a cold

Allergies last for weeks and may strike according to the season, while colds typically last for seven to 10 days and can make someone feel especially rundown.

“Sometimes a patient will say, ‘I always get a sinus infection every spring and fall,’ but viruses don’t tend to have a schedule, so the patient is probably dealing with allergies,” Hamilton said. “Or, if someone thinks they’ve had a cold for a month, it might actually be allergies.”

Work with your health care provider to determine what you’re dealing with and how best to treat it.

Treating the issue

When it comes to allergies, it’s best to avoid whatever is causing the reaction, whether that’s ragweed pollen or cat dander. Clean and vacuum frequently, use hypoallergenic pillows and make sure air filters are clean. Shower each night to wash off allergens that have collected on your skin and in your hair.

Over-the-counter histamine blockers help relieve symptoms as they reduce the allergic response. Nasal steroids and antihistamines, along with eye drops, can provide additional relief.

“They’re all very effective and have very few side effects,” Hamilton said.

If those medications don’t do the trick, talk with your provider to determine whether other conditions are contributing to your symptoms or if allergy injections might be necessary.

“When allergies are debilitating and we’ve tried the other medications with minimal response, then it’s a good idea to see an allergist,” Hamilton said.

When treating a cold, the first thing to understand is that antibiotics are not the solution.

“Antibiotics do not help with colds at all,” Hamilton said. “Unfortunately, you’re likely going to feel bad for a week or two as the virus runs its course.”

An anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen can help with aches and pains, while a decongestant can improve breathing — just check with your provider to make sure the medications are safe for you. Stay hydrated and rest, and avoid exposing others to the virus.

When a cold lasts for more than two weeks, check in with your health care provider as secondary conditions such as pneumonia, bronchitis and sinus infections may develop.

If you find yourself feeling rundown, remember that either allergies or the common cold may be to blame. But by treating each condition appropriately, you’ll be back to enjoying fall before you know it.

Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at

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