Not all sniffles are the same.
It’s often challenging during the winter months to determine whether you’ve fallen victim to a nasty bug or are just adjusting to the changing atmosphere. The early signs of allergies or reactions to a shifting environment (looking at you, heaters) versus the early signs of a cold are deceptively similar.
“A cold can often be confused with allergies because you may not experience a fever or have a low-grade fever,” Dr. Ian Tong, chief medical officer at Doctor On Demand, told HuffPost. “You may have slight aches and pains, sneezing, coughing and may experience a sore throat first.”
It’s important to distinguish the difference between the two so you’re able to properly treat them. Curious how to decipher the first symptoms? We chatted with experts who broke down how you can recognize the difference ― and how to take care of yourself accordingly.
1. Assess your level of fatigue
Common colds are known to take a toll on your energy levels, leaving you more drained than you would be with allergies. Research shows colds do make you sleepier than normal. If your body is begging for rest, you’re likely fighting a bug.
2. Know the difference between an itchy throat and a sore one
Some allergies can irritate your throat thanks to the postnasal drip, but typically sore throats are associated with a cold, Tong explained. Painful swallowing or swollen glands are usually a sign of a cold or infection.
“Colds are viruses that affect the upper airway,” Tong said. “The virus can spread to the entire respiratory system including the throat, causing soreness.”
3. Pay attention to your cough
The distinct difference between a cold-related cough and an allergy-related one depends on when you experience it, Tong said. While both can cause a chronic cough, allergies may be worse later in the day.
“Allergies might give you postnasal drip, which could lead to cough, but you might notice the cough seems to bother you more at night,” he explained.
4. Consider the season
Allergies vary by month, and you’ll typically know which season you have a flare-up, Tong said.
“Both colds and allergies can be seasonal, but allergies are very predictable so you can expect them each year and be on guard,” Tong said. “Talk to a doctor to learn how to prepare for allergies.”
5. If all else fails, check your temperature
If you’re running warm, you’re probably dealing with a cold, plain and simple.
“Allergy seasons overlap with cold and flu season, and for people with environmental allergies, their season can be year-round,” Dr. William Curry, associate dean of primary care and rural medicine at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, told HuffPost. “The symptoms can overlap too, with sneezing, cough, and mucus drainage, but allergies will not cause a fever or body aches.”
How To Treat And Manage Colds And Allergies
Recognizing the difference early when you first start showing symptoms is only half the battle. If you discover you’re facing a cold over a reaction to a changing season, there are some ways you can alleviate your symptoms and shorten the duration.
1. Drink lots of fluids
“Water or sports drinks help a lot,” Curry said. “Being even a little dehydrated makes the muscle aches and weakness worse.”
2. Try to manage your stress
Excess anxiety can weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to colds and the flu, Tong said.
“Pushing your limits will take away important energy your body needs to get better,” he added.
3. Try over-the-counter medicines or home treatments
Both Tong and Curry recommended pain relievers like acetaminophen to help relieve body aches and sinus pains. You can also try remedies like gargling warm water and salt water to ease throat soreness and drinking tea with honey, Curry added.
4. Get lots of sleep
If you don’t, you’ll only make your cold worse, Tong warned. And it even goes beyond when you have a virus: Research shows too little sleep can make you more likely to get sick in the first place. Rest, rest, rest.
5. For allergies, prepare beforehand
Preparation is key to manage any effects from allergies, Tong said. This includes chatting with your doctor about medicines that can work for you.
“You will want to have your nasal steroids, antihistamines like loratadine or cetirizine and nasal saline spray,” he explained. “Once you get the first hint of allergy season, then reach for your medications and start taking your nasal steroid and oral antihistamine pills.”
Here’s to a sneeze-free season.