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Allergies or a Cold?
Written By : Mark Rosenberg, MD 
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Millions of Americans suffer from allergies, and we all fall prey to the common cold from time to time. Though very different, these two conditions cause similar symptoms. Sometimes it is difficult to tell whether allergies are making you sniffle and sneeze or whether the cold virus is to blame. Many patients I've treated over the years do not take the time to tell the difference-they say they'll feel sick either way. This may be true, but there is a crucial reason to learn how to tell them apart: you will be able to treat your illness more effectively, and therefore, feel healthy faster.

Colds vs. Allergies

The causes of colds and allergies are very different. A cold develops when one of hundreds of different cold viruses gets into your body. This occurs most often by coming into contact with an infected person. You can contract his or her cold virus by shaking hands, being sneezed on, kissing or sharing a glass. You might simply touch an object the infected person has touched and contract the virus by rubbing your nose or touching your food. Once the virus is in your body the immune system kicks into high gear, resulting in common cold symptoms.

When it comes to allergies, there are no viruses or "bugs" to catch. An allergy is when your body mistakes benign substances like pollen for germs. At this point, your immune system behaves in much the same way as it does when you catch a cold virus. The difference is that you are not infected with harmful germs. There is little you can do if you are prone to allergic reactions, and similar allergies often run in families.

Use this guide to recognize the difference between colds and allergies.

It's a cold if you have...

  • Congested and runny nose with thick green/yellow discharge
  • Possible low fever
  • Achy muscles
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Symptoms that strike in the fall or winter and last an average of 5 to 7 days

It's an allergies if you have...

  • Congestion and runny nose with clear, thin discharge
  • Sneezing and wheezing
  • Itchy nose, throat, ears and itchy, watery eyes
  • Symptoms that occur around the same time every year

Feeling Better Fast  The Natural Way!

Once you've determined the true cause of your symptoms, you can set about feeling better. Colds can be tough to avoid, considering all the people we interact with everyday. If you have the unmistakable aches and fatigue that accompany colds, get plenty of rest and drink a lot of fluids. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories like Advil can relieve aches and pains. If you have severe congestion, you may consider decongestants, but be careful to avoid driving on these meds, as they may cause you to become drowsy.

Natural remedies for colds include zinc, which is sold as lozenges or nasal sprays. Daily doses of vitamin C may prevent cold symptoms from taking hold. Immune booster, Echinacea, is also an effective cold preventer. As far as home remedies go, chicken soup is a sure bet-it may reduce inflammation and helps fight dehydration.

Allergies may be impossible to eradicate, but you can reduce your contact with certain triggers. Avoid spending time outdoors when the pollen count is high. Have any mold in your home treated professionally and regularly change the filters in your ventilation system. Stay away from excessively dusty or damp areas. Decongestants may also help allergy suffers, along with antihistamines, which are available over-the-counter in non-drowsy formulas.

You may also consider herbal remedies for allergies. A study in the British Medical Journal showed that the herb, butterbur, was as effective as antihistamines at preventing symptoms of hay fever. Take one tablet four times a day. Dried nettles or teas made from this plant have been used to treat common allergies. Tonics made with the herb, goldenseal, are another popular alternative remedy. Finally, grape seed extract, thanks to its high flavonoid content, is thought to reduce allergy symptoms.

With a little self-knowledge and a quick evaluation of your symptoms, you can quickly begin an effective regimen of self-care. If allergies are chronic or unmanageable, visit your doctor. Likewise, if a cold lasts longer than two weeks, make an appointment-it could be allergies or a more complex condition. Feeling sneezy, stuffy or tired is unpleasant no matter what the cause, but these tips should have you back in good health in the shortest time possible.

Mark Rosenberg, M.D.
Institute For Healthy Aging

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