Summer Cold or Seasonal Allergy: How Can You Tell the Difference?

Health Professional, Medical Reviewer

Summer colds can be very annoying but how do you determine whether you have a cold, or have seasonal allergy? Runny nose, postnasal drip (the feeling of drainage going down the back of the throat), nasal congestion and sneezing are frequent complaints of allergy sufferers. Unfortunately all of these symptoms may also occur in the setting of a viral upper respiratory infection (common cold).

When Symptoms Occur and How Long They Last is Important
Common colds are not nearly as common in the summer as in fall and winter. Allergists often suspect seasonal allergies are the culprit when patients have cold symptoms at the same time of the year each summer. A distinguishing feature is the length of time you have of common cold symptoms compared to seasonal allergy symptoms. Cold symptoms generally last five to seven days whereas seasonal allergy symptoms go on for two or more months. Because aerosolized pollen and mold fluctuate with weather patterns there may be several allergy symptom free days in between periods of active hay fever symptoms. Some people misinterpret this as having multiple or back to back colds.

There are physiologic mechanisms that protect us from having weekly or monthly colds when our immune system is healthy. Many people that complain of having multiple or prolonged cold symptoms in late spring and summer have seasonal allergic rhinitis.

Common Cold Symptoms and Allergic Rhinitis Symptoms Overlap
As mentioned, allergic rhinitis and the common cold share many of the same symptoms but there tend to be more complaints of itching of the nose and eyes in the allergy setting. Fever is never considered a symptom of allergic rhinitis but may occur as part of the common cold. Cough occasionally occurs because of postnasal drip associated with allergic rhinitis but is more of a complaint with common cold. General aches are common complaints with colds but are seldom experienced in patients with allergic rhinitis.

What are the most important distinguishing features between common cold and seasonal allergy?** The time and duration** of symptoms is the most important factor in deciding whether symptoms are related to viral infection or allergic inflammation. Summer allergies may be triggered by pollen and/or mold spores. Tree, grass and ragweed pollen are in the air for several weeks at a time depending on the season. Mold spores in many areas of the country are a problem from late spring through fall. For this reason allergy symptoms are almost always problematic for several weeks at a time.

Furthermore, our immune system attacks viral upper respiratory infections almost always winning the battle within five to 10 days. For a period of weeks after cold symptoms are gone we are protected from additional cold syndromes.

Here are three things to consider if you have frequent summer colds
1)       Learn more about allergic rhinitis:
2)       Perhaps you do have a cold. Here are the basics on common cold: Common Cold (Viral Rhinitis)
3)       Talk to your doctor about getting allergy tests in order to determine if you are allergic to pollens or molds or indoor allergy triggers.