t takes Dr. Harvey Schwartz a week to figure out if his sneezing fits, watery eyes and runny nose are caused by a cold or an allergy even though he knows the symptoms for both.
“If my symptoms come on during the season, I know it’s allergies,” says Dr. Schwartz, an allergist and immunologist at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital who is allergic to ragweed and has other low-grade allergies. “If I get symptoms off season, I can’t tell.”
Seasonal allergic rhinitis, or seasonal allergies, can cause a sneezing spell or attack of three to five or more sneezes at a time, while colds can cause minor sneezing of one to two sneezes at a time, metro-area physicians say. Allergies and colds both can cause a runny or stuffy nose and headaches, they say.
Symptoms that differ include watery eyes and itchy throat, eyes and ears for allergies and low-grade fever and body aches for colds, the physicians say.
“The general thing is, most allergies follow a repetitive pattern. Viruses are more sporadic,” says Dr. Andrew Shorr, pulmonologist at Washington Hospital Center in Northwest.
Allergies can occur year-round or are seasonal, peaking in the spring and summer, when pollen from various plants becomes airborne, Dr. Shorr says.
Colds can occur any time of the year and peak in late fall and early spring, says Dr. Alkis Togias, section chief, asthma and inflammation, at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda.
“Sometimes it’s easy to confuse because early spring is a time for allergies, particularly tree allergies,” Dr. Togias says.
The average adult gets three to four colds per year, while children get seven to eight a year, Dr. Togias says. Thirty percent of the population has seasonal and perennial allergies, he says.
Seasonal allergies tend to last a short time, usually three to six weeks, and are caused by seasonal allergens such as tree pollen in March and April, grass pollen in May and ragweed in September, Dr. Schwartz says.
Perennial allergies are caused by indoor allergens, such as dust mites, which are small insects that live in dust, along with molds, cockroaches, and pet dander and saliva, says Dr. Surender Veswani, an allergist at Howard County General Hospital in Columbia, Md.
Symptoms from perennial allergies, such as sinus pressure and congestion, can persist year-round, Dr. Veswani says. Alternatively, symptoms from colds usually last from three to 10 days, he says.
Allergy symptoms are more prolonged and severe than cold symptoms, says Dr. Mary Bollinger, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.
“You often can see symptoms occurring soon after a trigger,” Dr. Bollinger says. “A cold can come on gradually, but you have similar symptoms.”
For instance, allergies and colds can cause nasal discharge, but the color of the discharge can differ. The discharge in allergies is clear, watery and thin, Dr. Bollinger says. Thick, colored discharge that usually is yellow or green indicates a cold, she says.