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Is it a cold, or is it allergies?

​​​After a hard winter and late spring, warmer weather is certainly welcome. But along with this beautiful change in temperatures comes the runny noses, watery eyes and sneezes we all recognize as symptoms of the common cold. Or are they?

It may well be that you're suffering from allergies. How can you tell for sure?

"Because the symptoms of these conditions are very similar, it can be difficult to tell the difference," said Ejaz Yousef, M.D.​, a Marshfield Clinic allergist who sees patients in Marshfield and Stevens Point.

"The common cold is one of the viral infectious diseases of the nose, throat and sinuses," he noted. "Germs that cause colds are highly contagious and can be passed simply by touching something that was touched previously by an infected person or through hand-to-hand contact."

Allergies, on the other hand, result from an overactive immune system that identifies harmless substances in the air as potential threats in some individuals. 

"In this case, the body goes to war by releasing chemicals to fight the allergy, resulting in nasal congestion, sneezing and runny nose," Dr. Yousef said.

Quite different conditions cause similar symptoms. But how can you tell which is which? 

cold or allergies chart

There​ still is no cure for the common cold, although some over-the-counter medications may temporarily ease some symptoms. But if it's an allergy, you do have options.

"The key is early diagnosis and treatment," Dr. Yousef said. "After confirming allergies by doing special skin testing, they can be treated with antihistamines (Allegra®, Claritin®, Zyrtec®) or prescription medications."

Allergists also often do a 360-degree evaluation for asthma, sinusitis and acid reflux, conditions that cannot only mimic allergies or cold but can complicate them.

"When someone can't be treated effectively with these medications, he or she may be a candidate for immunotherapy, or allergy shots," Dr. Yousef said. "These can provide an effective cure for some people, while for others the shots can at least control their allergies."

For more information about treatment of allergies, search our health library for allergies.