Breathing clearly is something that many of us take for granted. It’s not until we wake up one day with severe nasal congestion that we realize the importance of clear sinuses. The first step towards treating nasal congestion, however, is identifying the cause. While most cases are caused by allergies and colds, these are two unique medical conditions that require their different treatment. So, how do you know if you are suffering from allergies or a cold?
Allergies vs Colds: What’s the Difference?
Colds are a group of viral infections that affect the upper respiratory tract, including the sinuses. Researchers have identified more than 200 strains of the cold virus, the most common of which is the rhinovirus. Because there are so many strains, many of which mutate, it’s nearly impossible for medical researchers to develop an effective vaccine for cold infections.
Cold infections are highly contagious and spread through mucus particles in the air or on surfaces. It typically takes one to two weeks for individuals to recover from a cold infection. If you are suffering from a cold, you should limit contact with other individuals to reduce the risk of transmission.
Unlike colds, allergies aren’t an infectious illness but, rather, an immune disorder in which the individual’s immune system is hyperactive towards an environmental substance that’s harmless to other individuals. Our immune system plays an essential role in protecting us from infection. Consisting of white blood cells known as leukocytes, it’s responsible for finding and neutralizing infection-causing bacteria, viruses, fungi and substances. When an infection-causing organism enters the body, the immune system responds by attacking it, thus protecting us from illness.
Some individuals, however, have a hyperactive immune system that overreacts to the presence of one or more harmless substances. Pollen, for instance, is a common substance to which many people are allergic. When spring rolls around and the air is filled with pollen, these individuals experience an allergic reaction that includes severe nasal congestion. Their immune system targets the pollen, believing it’s an infection-causing substance, by attacking the upper respiratory tract and causing the release of histamines.
How Common Are Allergies and Colds?
Both allergies and colds are very common. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunotherapy (ACAAI), up to 30 percent of adults and 40 percent of children in the United States suffer from allergies. Allergies are so common, in fact, that they are the sixth most common cause of chronic illness.
Colds are even more common than allergies, with nearly everyone developing at least one cold infection during their life. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that most adults will catch two to three colds per year while children often catch up to five colds per year.
To better understand the condition from which you are suffering, you must look at the symptoms. While the exact symptoms may vary depending on the particular cold strain and how the person’s immune system responds to it, most colds trigger a few basic symptoms, including nasal congestion, runny nose, malaise, sneezing, low-grade fever, sore throat and headaches. The onset of cold symptoms usually begin two or three days after exposure to the virus.
The symptoms of an allergy attack vary depending on the specific type of allergy. Skin allergies like contact dermatitis, for example, usually result in superficial symptoms like localized itching, redness and irritation at the point of exposure. Nasal allergies, on the other hand, share many of the same symptoms as colds.
With nasal allergies, the allergen enters the upper-respiratory tract where it’s attacked by the individual’s immune system. Common allergens associated with nasal allergies include pollen, dust mites, mold and pet dander. As the individual’s immune system attacks the substance, it causes the release of histamines while resulting in symptoms such as severe nasal congestion, runny nose, shortness of breath, coughing, malaise, headache and fever. Symptoms of nasal allergies typically persist until the individual is no longer exposed to the problematic allergen or has sought treatment.
How To Tell the Difference
There are a few ways to tell the difference between allergies and colds. First, take a closer look at your mucus. Because it’s a viral infection, colds usually result in yellow or green mucus. If your mucus is clear, you are probably suffering from nasal allergies and not a cold.
Also, consider when the symptoms began. If you begin sneezing and experiencing other nasal symptoms after mowing the law, it’s probably allergies. You can even check the daily pollen count for your area to see if it coincides with your symptoms. A high pollen count increases the risk of allergy attacks in individuals who suffer from nasal allergies.
Finally, consider the duration of your symptoms. Colds usually go away after a few weeks, but allergies will persist for as long as you remain exposed to the allergen.
Seek Professional Help
Whether it’s allergies or a cold infection, you don’t have to live with chronic nasal congestion. Founded by Dr. Daniel G. Becker, the Becker ENT Center is one of New Jersey’s premier centers for sinus treatment. From allergy testing and immunotherapy to balloon sinuplasty, they offer a variety of professional services to help you breathe better and live a healthier, more enjoyable life. Contact the Becker Ear, Nose & Throat Center today to learn more.