Is it a Cold or Allergies Triggering Your Asthma?

by John Bottrell Health Professional

So you're curious whether your sniffles, sneezes and wheezes are caused by allergies or the common cold.
Since both are treated different, it's important for you -- or at least your doctor -- to be able tell the difference.

This is important because both allergies and colds are common asthma triggers.
And cold and allergy symptoms are early warning signs of asthma, and indicators that you need to take some form of action to prevent worsening asthma.

The Mayo Clinic (as you can read here) offers the following tips to help you determine if it's allergies or the common cold:

Allergy symptoms:

  • Sometimes a cough

  • Never aches and pains

  • Sometimes fatigue

  • Usually itchy eyes

  • Usually sneezing

  • Sometimes sore throat

  • Usually runny nose

  • Usually stuffy nose

  • Never a fever

Common cold:

  • Usually a cough

  • Sometimes general aches and pains

  • Sometimes fatigue

  • Rarely itchy eyes

  • Usually sneezing

  • Usually sore throat

  • Usually runny nose

  • Usually stuffy nose

  • Rarely a fever, if there is a fever it's a low grade fever

Colds are generally caught (but not always) when the temperature gets cold (as I write here) and people are indoors more with the doors and windows closed.
In close proximety to infected sniffers and sneezers, you're more likely to catch a bug or a virus.

Allergies can
be seasonal too, but you can't catch an allergy. Pollen is a common trigger in the spring, mold counts may be up during humid summers, and ragweed counts (as I write here) are high in the fall.

Once you
determine (or make an educated guess) that you have a cold, you'll want to determine if it's viral or bacterial, because they are both treated differently.

Allina Hospitals and Clinics offers some tips to help you tell the difference:

Viral Symptoms:

  • Runny nose is common

  • Muscle aches is usual

  • Headaches often

  • Dizziness often

  • Low grade fever often (up to 101
    F or 38.5

  • Cough often

  • Dry cough often

  • Coughing up phlegm (mucus or sputum)

  • Hoarseness is common

  • Antibiotics will not help

Bacterial symptoms:

  • Runny nose is rare

  • Muscle aches are rare

  • Headaches are rare

  • Dizziness is rare

  • High grade fever is common (102
    F or 38.6
    C and higher)

  • Cough is present occasionally

  • Dry cough is rare

  • Coughing up phlegm

  • Hoarseness is rare

  • Antibiotics will help

Generally speaking, according to, a viral infection lasts less than 10 to 14 days. If it lasts longer chances are it's bacterial. High fevers are also usually an indication it might be bacterial.

Allina also notes that most of the time the common cold is caused by a virus, yet occasionally it can be caused by a bacteria. The flu is caused by a virus, yet ear infections and strep throat are caused by a bacteria.

Another great way to differentiate from a viral or bacterial infection is by examining your sputum, as I write about in my sputum lexicon. If it's light yellow, you probably have a virus. If it's dark yellow, brown, or if it smells putrid, then it's probably a bacteria. also notes that many bacterial infections are secondary infections, whereas a virus started the job and a bacteria snuck in and made matters worse. Sinusitis is a common secondary infection for asthmatics. Ear infections and pneumonia are also secondary infections.

To prevent a secondary infection, and to prevent the worsening of your asthma that may be the result, you're better off calling your doctor as soon as you notice symptoms. If nothing else, it can't hurt to see your doctor -- especially if you have asthma.

If you're wavering as to what to do, you can follow these tips.
Or, better yet, you can simply follow your asthma action plan.

If allergies are causing your symptoms, treatment generally includes antihistamines like Benadryl or Claritin, Leukotriene blockers like Singulair and Accolate, allergy shots and avoidance of allergens.

Bacterial infections are treated with antibiotics.
Your doctor might try you on a broad spectrim antibiotic because they tend to kill many bacterias.
Yet if that doesn't work, he may have you try narrow spectrum antibiotics, which kill specific bacteria.

To determine what bacteria is causing your symptoms, and what antibiotic works best against that specific bug, your doctor may have you spit some
phlegm in a sterile cup for testing in a lab. At least this is what he should do, otherwise he's just guessing.

However, if you have hardluck asthma your doctor might simply put you on an antibiotic until it's proven otherwise.
While this isn't good practice for most patients, it can be in this case because bacterias can hit chronic lungers really hard.

Other than allergies, viral infections are the most common asthma trigger.
Yet, despite a common myth, antibiotics do not kill viruses.
Therefore, treatment of viral infections is generally based on treating symptoms.

For example, if you have nasal congestion, you take nasal decongestants.
If your asthma is effected, your asthma should be treated.
This is why it's important you have an asthma action plan and follow it to a tee.

It's also important you see your doctor regularly, take all your asthma controller medicines as prescribed, and exercise regularly. All of these will help to keep your lungs, heart and immune systems strong so your body is better capable of withering the storm.

With your new wisdom, and by following your
asthma action plan, you should be fully prepared to wither the storm, regardless of whether the cause is allergies, a virus, or a bacteria.

John Bottrell
Meet Our Writer
John Bottrell

John Bottrell is a registered Respiratory Therapist. He wrote for HealthCentral as a health professional for Asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).