Spring and early summer have brought a round of sniffles and unrelenting cough. High pollen counts and dry weather can make it difficult to distinguish if your symptoms are due to allergies or a cold. While many cold and allergy symptoms overlap, there are some defining characteristics that can help you tell the difference and determine the best treatment method.

One common overlapping symptom is chest congestion with a phlegmy cough. Allergies can also cause chest congestion and a bad cough due to mucus from the nasal sinuses dripping down the back of the throat (post-nasal drip). If you find yourself clearing your throat, followed by chest congestion, coughing, and thick mucus during dry, seasonal allergy weather with no fever or muscle aches, it is most likely an allergy. However, if these same symptoms present with a fever and/or muscle aches, lethargy or fatigue, you likely have a cold or flu.


When present, features distinguishing an infection from an allergy are a fever greater than 100°F measured orally and/or body aches. Symptoms common to both colds and allergies are: sore throat, stuffy nose, sneezing, and post-nasal drip. Viruses, the cause of colds, cannot be killed by antibiotics, like a “Z-pack.” Colds come on quickly and can include a mild fever, but usually resolve completely in one to two weeks once your body has fought off the virus. A fever of greater than 100 degrees Fahrenheit or severe body aches indicate you may have the flu, not a cold, and should contact your primary care provider.


When an allergen or infectious particle attaches to your mucus membranes, your body’s inflammatory response creates an immunologic response. Additional mucus is made to catch and flush away the virus, but this can cause serious congestion. Decongestants like Mucinex-D can be taken during the day to loosen this build-up of thick mucus. Thin, runny, watery discharge requires an anti-histamine (eg: Zyrtec, Allegra) instead of Mucinex-D. If your cough persists while sleeping, Mucinex DM can be used as a cough suppressant at bedtime.

A natural and very effective treatment option is to use a nasal saline rinse (like NeilMed sinus, Simply Saline, or CVS brand) which can aid your body in flushing the virus or allergens (pollen, dust, etc.) out of your sinus and nasal passages. This treatment should be followed within 30 minutes by a nasal spray (like Flonase), which will shrink nasal passages. Clearing and shrinking nasal passages rids the sinuses of the offending agent. With cleared sinuses, watery eyes drain easily through cleared passages and post-nasal drip will decrease since the nasal rinse has cleared most of the debris from the sinuses. Without post-nasal drip, chest congestion is markedly reduced.

This regimen should be administered 2-3 times daily as dictated by symptoms.


An important thing to keep in mind is that your body can best fight infection when it is well rested and well hydrated. Allowing time for extra sleep during a cold, as well as drinking eight ounces of water or herbal caffeine-free tea every few hours and eating well, prepares your body with the energy and resources needed to combat a virus. In the winter, humidity levels in New England plummet, drying out nasal passages and creating the optimal environment for virus proliferation. Therefore, using a humidifier with warm mist in the bedroom at night will relieve the irritation and soreness of the throat and nose with moisture. Ideally, it is preferable to have a humidifier in your workspace as well.

Increasing your intake of Vitamin C to approximately 1000 milligrams (mg) per day for the duration of your cold can decrease the length of your sickness. These methods can help alleviate your cold symptoms and help you feel more functional as your body fights the virus.

If your symptoms have not gotten significantly better after two weeks, you may have developed a bacterial infection that needs a doctor’s attention or your symptoms may be more allergic in nature (even in the winter…think dust!).


Allergic symptoms are the result of your body interacting with inhaled allergens – environmental triggers that cause an immune system reaction. Immune cells in your body release chemicals called histamines that cause sinus swelling, which causes eye itchiness, mucus accumulation, post-nasal drip, and cough. The added mucus and airway irritation can also cause symptoms similar to asthma, such as tightness in the chest or difficulty breathing. While these symptoms can also be present in colds, most allergic symptoms occur seasonally and are long-lasting – it seems like a cold that won’t go away.

Antihistamine medications like Zyrtec, Claritin, and Allegra can help alleviate some of these allergic symptoms. Many people experience relief using these over-the-counter medications along with the nasal rinse followed by nasal spray mentioned above. Often even the non-drowsy formulations cause substantial drowsiness the following day. Therefore, it is recommended that they be taken in the early evening, and then as needed during the day. If you have tried these methods and are still suffering from allergic symptoms, talk to your primary care provider about prescription medication options, like Singulair.

When combating allergies, it is also important to prevent exposure as much as possible. For seasonal allergies, this can be done by keeping the windows closed, running a powerful air-cleaning HEPA filter in your home, and avoiding spending time outdoors when pollen counts are high. To further decrease allergens inside, take a shower in the evening or at night to wash off allergens stuck to your skin and hair that can be transferred to your bed. Also, change your clothes as soon as you come inside to avoid spreading allergens in your home. Using medications and avoiding allergens during allergy season can really make a difference!

With so many overlapping symptoms, it is easy to see how a cold and allergies could be confused. The attached graphic is intended to succinctly summarize this article. If you have any questions about your symptoms or treatment, please feel free to get in touch with our office, Enhanced Medical Care.