It’s a question that puzzles lots of folks when those familiar symptoms hit: Is all that coughing and sneezing from a cold or hay fever?

With so many similar symptoms, from sneezing to a runny nose, it’s easy to understand why many people find it hard to distinguish between the common cold and hay fever, especially at this time of year. Most people know that sneezing, runny noses, congestion and sinus pain are symptoms common to both the cold and hay fever. Some lesser-known shared symptoms include tiredness, headaches and difficulty concentrating.

Coughs are another common symptom. While they are most commonly caused by viral infections and are usually the residue of the cold or flu, allergies such as hay fever can also lead to dry coughs. This is most noticeable when pollen counts are high.

With so many common symptoms, it’s easy to see why people can get confused. Being aware of the differences between a cold and hay fever is important in that it can help ensure you choose the correct treatment for your condition.

Firstly, it’s important to know that a cold is caused by a virus, whereas hay fever is predominately caused by an allergic response, typically to pollen.

One symptom in particular can help differentiate between hay fever and a cold — itchiness. If you have red, watery, itchy eyes, an itchy throat, even an itchy palate (top or back of the mouth) and sore ears, then it’s probably hay fever, as these symptoms are rarely experienced when you have a cold. The one exception is an itchy nose, which can often appear before a sneeze in both hay fever and a cold.

Another good indicator of whether it is a cold or hay fever is the color of your nasal discharge. Although not the most pleasant of topics, it’s helpful to know the difference. If it’s a cold, your nasal discharge is more likely to be yellowish/green, whereas with hay fever it will most likely be clear.

With hay fever, you rarely get a sore throat (usually it is just an itchy, dry feeling), whereas that is a frequent indicator of an impending cold. Therefore, if you have cold-like symptoms and a sore throat or have had one in the last few days, it is more likely to be a cold.

When you start feeling unwell, it’s easy to think it could be a cold, especially if you have never had hay fever before. One in five people suffer from hay fever, and it’s important to know that hay fever can start at any age.

A common misconception is that hay fever starts in childhood and if you never had it as a child you won’t get it as an adult. Unfortunately, experts are unclear as to what triggers hay fever, but they do know it can often be triggered later in life, and a growing number of middle-aged and elderly adults are now being affected for the first time.

You ask, “Is it possible to get both?”

Yes, although this is a cruel trick your body can play on you, it is possible to have a cold and hay fever at the same time, especially if your immune system is very weak.

They have different causes. You get a cold when a tiny living thing called a virus gets into your body. There are hundreds of different types that can make you sick.

Once a cold virus gets inside you, your immune system, the body’s defense against germs, launches a counter-attack. It’s this response that brings on the classic symptoms like a cough or stuffed-up nose.

The viruses that cause colds are contagious. You can pick them up when someone who’s infected sneezes, coughs, or shakes hands with you. After a couple of weeks, at the most, your immune system fights off the illness and you should stop having symptoms.

It’s a different story with allergies. They’re caused by an overactive immune system. For some reason, your body mistakes harmless things, such as dust or pollen, for germs and mounts an attack on them.

When that happens, your body releases chemicals such as histamine, just as it does when fighting a cold. This can cause a swelling in the passageways of your nose, and you’ll start sneezing and coughing.

Unlike colds, allergies aren’t contagious, though some people may inherit a tendency to get them.

The most important difference is that colds usually don’t last longer than 14 days. So, see your doctor if you still have symptoms after two weeks. These may be allergy symptoms or signs of another problem.

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.

Glenn Ellis is the health columnist, author and radio commentator. He can be heard Saturdays at 9 a.m. at www.wurdradio.com, and Sundays at 8:30 a.m. at www.wdasfm.com. For more health information, visit www.glennellis.com.

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