Sniffles or sick: What’s causing your springtime ick?

As spring sets in, flowers start to bloom and trees get their leaves back, bringing all of their pollen with them and wreaking havoc on your allergies. The weather change from cold to warm also can take a toll on your immune system and lead to a springtime cold. While many allergy and cold symptoms show up similarly and neither are fun, it’s best to treat them differently. Allergies come from sensitivity to allergens such as seasonal pollen, and they’re not an illness or contagious. Colds are caused by viruses, which means you’re actually sick and they’re often contagious. So, what can you do to feel better?

Common cold

When you get a head or chest cold, your body is fighting off a virus that causes symptoms such as congestion, stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, coughing, and a sore throat. Since a cold is a viral infection, antibiotics (medications that fight bacteria) won’t bring much relief. A cold will usually clear up in about a week to 10 days, but there are some things you can do in the meantime to feel better. Decongestants can help loosen up chest and sinus congestion, and certain medications (antitussives) can help control your cough. Many over-the-counter “cold and flu” medicines contain both, so when you’re at the pharmacy, take a look at the active ingredients on the Drug Facts panel and what they do (for example, decongestant, cough suppressant, etc.). In addition, practice good hygiene such as washing your hands thoroughly, especially after touching doorknobs, handrails, and similar surfaces. And avoid “sharing” a cold by covering your mouth or nose when you cough or sneeze or simply by staying home when you’re sick.

Seasonal allergies

A seasonal allergy, or hay fever, is a sensitive reaction to something—usually pollen or pollution—in the air. Those with allergies might have symptoms similar to a cold, including stuffy or runny nose, coughing, or sneezing. However, you might experience itchy and watery eyes, and this is less common with a cold. Also, your cold will resolve itself, but allergies will continue as long as you’re exposed to whatever’s causing your body’s allergic reaction. Medications called antihistamines can tone down reactions and help you feel better, and decongestants can loosen up your stuffy nose.

Try these tips to help manage your allergies:

  • Know and avoid your allergy triggers. If you aren’t sure what you’re allergic to, see your healthcare provider to have tests done to help you narrow it down. In addition to antihistamines, your doctor also might suggest an inhaler or other medications to help prevent flare-ups.
  • Check the air quality in your area every day. If the pollen count is high, avoid spending too much time outside, mowing the grass, or exercising outdoors. Or wear a filter mask to keep particles out of your nose and mouth. If you have to drive somewhere, keep your car windows shut.
  • Wash away allergens. Shower when you come back indoors to wash pollen off your skin, hair, and eyelashes. And rinse out your nose with a saline spray or solution after you’ve been outside.

When to see medical

You don’t always need to go right to medical at the first sign of illness. Still, if your symptoms don’t improve after 10 days or you have a fever, see your doctor. And seek medical help if your symptoms get better after a few days, you feel okay for a day or two, and then they come back worse than before. Since this is often a sign of a bacterial infection, your doctor might treat it with antibiotics, so you can recover quickly.

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017). Common cold and runny nose. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Common colds: Protect yourself and others. Retrieved from

National Institutes of Health. (2014). Cold, flu, or allergy? Know the difference for best treatment. NIH News in Health. Retrieved from