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Cold or Allergies? How to Diagnose the Fall Sniffles

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The leaves are changing, the weather has turned cool, and just like clockwork you’re sneezing, sniffling, and constantly feeling the need to blow your nose. So is it a cold or fall allergies? Graham Snyder, MD, in the Division of Infectious Disease at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center has tips for telling the difference and advice for a speedy recovery.

“Fall can be a tricky time on the allergy calendar,” says Snyder. “In the northeast, pollen from plants such as ragweed is a common cause of allergy symptoms.”

This time of year is tricky; just as fall allergy season is getting started, the first wave of cold and flu season is coming on, too. It makes it hard to tell what’s really causing all that sneezing and congestion.

“Fall allergies and a head cold both cause a runny nose and sinus congestion,” says Snyder. “At first, it may be hard to tell if you have symptoms of seasonal allergies or the start of a viral infection.”

One way you can spot the difference early on is that a head cold caused by a virus may start with a sore throat and a lot of coughing. With a virus infection, you may have a mild fever and fatigue.

Another important distinction: colds make you feel awful for a day and then subside after one to two weeks, while allergies are steady and may be irritating for weeks at a time. If two weeks pass and your symptoms aren’t getting any better, you should talk to your doctor about the possibility of seasonal allergies. It’s important to determine whether or not you need to worry about spreading a cold to family and friends.

“While allergies affect many people, they are not contagious,” says Dr. Snyder. “You may suspect a contagious viral infection if you have been close to family, friends, or co-workers who were sick before you. With a cold, it is important to cover your cough, use a tissue to sneeze in, clean your hands often, and consider staying home from work.”

For allergies, helpful treatment options include over-the-counter sinus saline rinse, antihistamines, or nasal decongestants. If you have a cold, a saline rinse and decongestants can offer relief. For both allergies and colds, you should get rest, stay hydrated, and talk with your doctor about medications that reduce symptoms.

“Antibiotics won’t improve your runny nose and congestion symptoms, whether they are due to allergies or a virus infection,” says Dr. Snyder. “If symptoms continue for more than one to two weeks or you are concerned you may have the flu, talk with your doctor about what may be causing your symptoms.”

For more information on treating a cold or allergies, or to schedule an appointment with a Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center doctor, visit bidmc.org.