If you develop congestion and a runny nose, it's understandable to wonder what could be behind your discomfort. Do you have a cold, allergies or something else entirely? It's not always easy to figure out.
There's a reason for the confusion: The way your body reacts to allergies and infections is similar, allergist and immunologist Dr. Tania Elliott, tells Yahoo Life.
"Your allergy cells are a component of your immune system," she explains. "The reason why we see so much overlap in symptoms is viruses and bacteria can also aggravate and activate those cells."
When you're exposed to something you're allergic to, those allergy cells are activated and release histamine, which causes symptoms like itchiness, redness, swelling and mucus production, Elliott says. "When you have allergies that are untreated, what's happening is your immune system is constantly activated so you get a stuffy nose and increased mucus," she says. "Well, guess what? That is a perfect setup for an infection." Meaning, your allergies can actually cause an infection if they go untreated.
Watch the video above to learn more.
TANIA ELLIOTT: Feel the sniffles coming on? How can you tell if it's allergies, a cold, or something else? Here's what you need to know for the fall.
Your allergy cells are a component of your immune system. And the reason why we see so much overlap in symptoms is viruses and bacteria can also aggravate and activate those allergy cells. When you are exposed to something you're allergic to, those allergy cells get activated, and they release a chemical called histamine.
Histamine is responsible for itching, redness, swelling, congestion, and increases in mucus production. When you have allergies that are untreated, what's happening is your immune system is constantly activated. So you get a stuffy nose. And you get increased mucus. Well, guess what? That is a perfect setup for an infection.
You're probably wondering-- how can I tell the difference? One way is to look closely at symptoms. If you're feeling kind of crummy, and you have congestion, and a runny nose, and it's lasting longer than a week, the likelihood is that is an allergy. In general, allergies don't cause a fever or swollen lymph nodes. So if you're experiencing those symptoms, the likelihood is that it's an infection. And it can be from a bacteria or a virus.
Now, the challenge is sometimes there is an overlap because you could have a little bit of both. What starts off as allergies can then also end up with a super-imposed infection. So if you're experiencing facial pain or pressure in your sinuses, then that could be underlying allergies. However, if you notice it more on one side of your face, if you feel tooth pain, or if you feel a metallic taste in your mouth, that could be a sign that it's an infection.
So what can we do about it? When you have a virus or a cold, those symptoms tend to go away on their own. The best thing you can do is rest, and hydrate, and let it run it's course. If you're getting that facial pain, and radiating to the teeth, and metallic taste in your mouth, those are bacterial infections that likely will need an antibiotic.
Lastly, with regard to allergies, the first line of treatment is avoidance of your triggers. And then two other medical treatments are-- one, an antihistamine tablet which blocks that histamine release that we were talking about. Or two, a nasal steroid spray that you can spray into your nasal passages. The key there is you need to use it consistently over at least five or six days before you notice an improvement in your symptoms.
If you're experiencing allergies, the over-the-counter aisle at the pharmacy can be a very scary place. My recommendation is see a board-certified allergist, get tested, and curate a comprehensive treatment plan that's right for you.