Heath and Medicine

Summer Cold or Allergies? The Number One Tell-tale Sign

A sudden onset sore throat.  Fine one minute, and just like that, your next swallow feels weird.  You think maybe you imagined it so you swallow a few more times and confirm, it definitely hurts. A little while later you notice your nose is getting stuffy, your ears feel plugged, and come to think of it – you are feeling run down. Crap – a summer cold! Or is it?

Your average cold (viral rhinitis) and seasonal allergies (allergic rhinitis/hay fever), have similar symptoms:

  • sore throat
  • congestion
  • runny nose
  • sneezing
  • post nasal drip
  • ticklish cough

Except for one tell tale sign…

the itch factor

Generally the key in distinguishing whether your crappy symptoms are a cold verses allergies is that itchy feeling of the throat, nose or eyes.  That itch is a tingling or irritation of the skin or mucosal lining that compels you to scratch, rub, or make annoying rumbling hisses and growly sounds that drives your mates and coworkers batcrap crazy.


That nasty itch is caused by a protein in pollen produced by grasses, plants, and trees. Other culprits include cat and dog saliva, dander, mold, and dust mites.

The allergic reaction is actually an inflammatory response by your mast cells and basophils. When triggered, these cells produce histamine, which causes the uncomfortable symptoms.  Over several hours, the histamine activates other inflammatory cells and this cycle repeats until the allergen is removed or the histamine release is blocked.

Allergies can make you feel miserable. The good news it they are highly treatable, depending on how severe your reaction is, you can do several things,

  • Avoid trigger allergens: If you know what you are allergic to, do your best to avoid exposure. Pollen counts high? Wear a mask.  So what if you look like a doofus –  it beats sneezing and feeling miserable. Other things that might help: shower before bed and use air-conditioning.
  • Antihistamines: Most are now available over-the-counter. Talk to your friendly neighborhood pharmacist if you need help deciding which one to try.  Side effects are possible (sedation with some), and if you take prescription meds you need to talk to your primary care provider before adding on another med due to potential drug-drug interactions.
  • Prescription nasal sprays: If your allergies last a season or all year round, prescription sprays such as fluticasone or mometasone are a great treatment option.  They control symptoms and are less likely to cause serious side effects.
  • Allergy Shots: Certainly the underdog, allergy shots are something to be considered. If you want to get to the root of your allergy problem and have the patience to do allergy testing and immunotherapy, treat your allergies using this route.

Allergies are not just kid’s stuff.  Some allergies take years of exposure before they finally develop, which explains why adults surprisingly become allergic when they never were before.

If that “cold” seems to be lingering, you are overly tired, and you can’t stand that itchy throat or nose, your problem just might be allergies.

As always, your healthcare provider is your best source of medical information for questions and concerns related to your health.

By Kathy

I am a Nurse Practitioner from Rochester, NY presently working in both the inpatient and outpatient hospital psychiatric settings.