Is it a Cold or an Allergy?

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Summary & Participants

When you have watery eyes, a runny nose, congestion and sneezing, how can you tell if it's a cold or an allergy? Find out the difference and the treatment options for both.

Medically Reviewed On: July 21, 2012

Webcast Transcript

ANNOUNCER: It's a familiar feeling. Your head is stuffy, your nose is runny, and you're sneezing. But, how can you tell if you're coming down with a cold or if maybe you have an allergy?

MARION RICHMAN, MD: An allergy is actually an immune response to a substance in the environment that's normally harmless, so it's an inappropriate immune response.

BETH CORN, MD: What happens is that different chemicals are released and cause people to have various symptoms like itchy eyes, runny nose, post-nasal drip.

MARION RICHMAN, MD: A cold is an infectious process-contagious, infectious, 99% of the time caused by a virus, and very rarely caused by a bacteria.

The signs that are common to the two are the runny nose, nasal congestion. More on the side of the allergies is the itchy, watery eyes, the clear, runny nose, itchy throat. On the side of the colds, you're more likely to see some fever.

ANNOUNCER: In deciding whether it's a cold, or an allergy, also consider how long the symptoms have lasted.

BETH CORN, MD: I don't think that anyone should be walking around with a cold for four weeks. A cold for three days, that's one thing. But a cold for four weeks, that's a whole different scenario. And if someone's experiencing that, someone should go see a doctor.

ANNOUNCER: Another clue that may tell you it's an allergy, is having a regular repeated pattern of symptoms, year after year.

BETH CORN, MD: If you're having the same symptoms every fall, chances are that you're not just getting a cold every fall, there's a good chance that it's due to ragweed and weed allergy.

ANNOUNCER: A doctor's exam can ultimately determine if it's a cold or an allergy.

MARION RICHMAN, MD: I think most primary care doctors can diagnose and treat allergies, and they have to know their limitations and when to consult a specialist.

ANNOUNCER: The specialist in this case, is an allergist who can determine just what a patient is allergic to by administering an allergy test.

BETH CORN, MD & PATIENT: I'm gonna do some skin testing to see what you're allergic to, given that you gave symptoms of allergy. I'm gonna take these needles and I'm gonna introduce different proteins from different allergens in the environment, and in 20 minutes, we're gonna know what you're allergic to.

ANNOUNCER: The test, a series of scratches or pricks, is fairly painless. And the results can be seen quickly.

BETH CORN, MD & PATIENT: As you can see by the red blotches, and those indicate what you're allergic to. So this is your positive control, this is just histamine that I put on from my tray. And I compare all of these reactions to the histamine positive control. So you can see the reaction here, is cat.

ANNOUNCER: Once allergies are established, there are a range of treatments available to control symptoms.

MARION RICHMAN, MD: We have steroids, which can be used, sprayed into the nose, which are very effective. We have the non-sedating antihistamines which are a mainstay of treatment.

ANNOUNCER: Those antihistamines, prescribed by doctors can be taken once day to control symptoms, and are non-sedating. Many of those found over the counter are not.

MARION RICHMAN, MD: The over-the-counter antihistamines are effective, probably just as effective as the prescription ones, but they have that you know very serious side effect of making people sleepy.

BETH CORN, MD: So this affects people's productivity at work, it affect's people's mood, it affects children going to school, learning.

ANNOUNCER: But recently a non-sedating antihistamine, has become available over the counter.

MARION RICHMAN, MD: That would definitely be better for the consumer. But they may still want to you know talk to their doctor and make sure their symptom profile is appropriate for the medicine they're going to take.

ANNOUNCER: With the common cold, treatment is also geared towards relieving symptoms.

MARION RICHMAN, MD: For cold we still don't have the cure, so the treatment options are really limited to whatever symptoms you have. For the congestion there's the decongestants. Runny nose you can use antihistamines. Cough you can use cough suppressants.

ANNOUNCER: Plenty of rest and drinking lots of fluids can also be effective. Ultimately, understanding the difference between the common cold and an allergy can mean finding the most effective treatments to fight off the symptoms of both.