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Is It Allergic Rhinitis or Just a Cold? Learn to Read the Signs

As the seasons change, the temperatures fluctuate up and down. All sorts of germs and bugs get passed around as our bodies adjust to the new weather. Is the office flu causing your sneezing, coughing and runny nose or is it allergies?

The Difference Between Colds and Allergies

So exactly how does allergic rhinitis differ from the common cold or flu?

As you probably already know, viruses cause colds. You become exposed to this virus from a sick person after they sneeze, cough, or shake your hand. Once this virus or germ has entered your body, your immune system goes on high alert. In an effort to fight off this new invader, the body produces all the typical symptoms usually associated with the common cold or flu: coughing, sneezing, runny nose, and congestion.

Allergy symptoms, on the other hand, have a different source. Instead of a harmful virus causing the symptoms, it’s a benign substance known as an allergen. People with allergies have overly sensitive immune systems. When they come in contact with allergens, substances that most people don’t react to, their immune system thinks it’s an invader like a virus. To fight it off, the body responds with those same flu-like symptoms. The most common allergens for allergic rhinitis are: pollen, pet dander, dust mites, mould, and cockroaches.

You also can’t “catch” allergies the way you can a cold. Unlike the cold and flu, they aren’t contagious.

Learning to Diagnose the Two

So, if the symptoms of colds and allergies are so similar, how can you possibly tell if you have one or the other?

The biggest tell- tale sign is the length of time you experience your symptoms. A cold or flu usually lasts no longer than 2 weeks. Allergy symptoms can potentially go on indefinitely, or as long as you remain exposed to the allergen. If you have seasonal allergic rhinitis, you will have your symptoms for as long as the allergy season lasts.

Other indications that tell you know whether you have a cold or allergic rhinitis include:

  • Mucus Color. Both cold and allergy sufferers will usually have a runny nose. Check the color of your mucus. If it is brown or green, that means you have an infection like a cold or flu. If the mucus is always clear it could indicate that you have allergies.

  • Head and Body Pain. While headaches can sometimes be a symptom of allergic rhinitis, they more commonly come with colds. If you also have aches and pains all over your body, you most definitely have a cold or flu.

  • Itchy Eyes, Nose, Throat or Mouth. If you experience itchiness in your eyes, nose throat or mouth, your body is probably reacting to some sort of allergen.

  • Nosebleeds. People who are allergic to pollen can sometimes be prone to nosebleeds because the allergen has a tendency to get deposited inside the front of the nose.

  • High Fever. While allergies can cause an elevated temperature of somewhere around 100.2 Fahrenheit (37.8 Celsius) they’ll never cause a really high fever. With a cold or flu, you can have a temperature of up to 104 Fahrenheit (40 Celsius).

  • Severe Sore Throat. It’s common for allergy sufferers to experience a mild sore throat. But if your throat is severely sore or you have hoarseness, you are battling a cold or the flu.

  • Puffiness Under the Lower Eyelid. Some allergy sufferers will have puffiness under their lower eyelids as well as a line across the tip of their nose. These symptoms are the result of the natural substance heparin, created by the body’s white blood cells.

You also want to consider the time of year. Colds and flus can happen year-round but they are far more prevalent during the winter season. Allergies, particularly indoor ones, happen all year long. If you have seasonal allergic rhinitis, you’ll most likely experience symptoms during the spring, summer and fall months.

When Allergies Can Turn Into an Infection

Some people who have allergic rhinitis are more prone to infections like sinusitis or bronchitis because the mucus can get backed up in their nasal cavities creating the perfect breeding ground for bacteria to grow. Saline solutions or sprays can be effective at clearing the sinuses and preventing infections.

How to Know For Sure If You Have Allergies

The only way to know with absolute certainty if you have allergic rhinitis is to make an appointment with your doctor. An allergist will ask you specifics about your symptoms and your home and work environments. He or she can then prescribe either a skin or blood test to pinpoint the exact cause of your allergy symptoms.

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