It’s cold and flu season, and you’re suffering from a stuffy nose; itchy, watery eyes; and a cough. If you’re like most people, you probably assume you have a cold or maybe a mild case of the flu. But in fact, you might be suffering from seasonal allergies.
If you didn’t realize that you can get seasonal allergies in the winter, you’re not the only one. But seasonal allergies that occur in the winter are just as common as those that occur in the spring, summer, and fall.
The difference is that many people who suffer from allergies during the colder months of the year simply don’t realize that’s what they’re struggling with. They assume that their congestion, cough, and itchy eyes are signs of a cold and flu — and when the symptoms persist for weeks instead of going away after seven to 10 days, they simply assume that they’re suffering from a particularly virulent cold, or that they’re getting re-infected again and again.
So how can you tell if your respiratory symptoms are viral in origin or can be chalked up to allergies? While the symptoms of colds, flu, and allergies are similar, there are some important differences. Allergy symptoms also typically last all winter long, while a cold or flu goes away after a week or at most, two. Treatment for winter allergies is much the same as treatment for other kinds of seasonal allergies, and can be very effective. There’s no reason to suffer just because it’s cold outside.
The Flu Causes Sudden, Severe Illness
The primary difference between the flu and a cold or allergies is that flu symptoms come on very suddenly and can be utterly debilitating. According to registered nurse Claudia Acreman, “You deteriorate within a couple of hours, you may not have any symptoms, you may go to bed with no symptoms and wake up really sick.”
Flu will also cause a high fever, usually above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Flu symptoms will abate within one or two weeks. Milder symptoms that are not accompanied by fever or body aches, and that last for longer than two weeks, may be allergies instead.
Colds Cause Fevers and Body Aches
While a cold won’t cause the same high fever associated with the flu, it will cause a low-grade fever, and may also come with body aches and a sore throat. Colds come on more slowly than the flu, and may not take you out of commission completely. Like the flu, however, a cold will run its course in seven to 10 days or, in the case of a particularly bad cold, two weeks.
If you have a cold or the flu, you’re almost certain to have at least a low-grade fever. If it’s allergies, however, there’s no way you’ll ever have a fever — allergies don’t cause fevers. They may, however, cause itchiness of the eyes, nose, or throat, congestion, and even coughing. Another important difference between allergies and a cold or flu is the duration of the illness — any respiratory illness that lasts longer than two weeks and isn’t accompanied by a fever can probably be chalked up to seasonal allergies.
Dust, mold, mites, and pets are the most common causes of winter allergies. Most people spend the majority of their time indoors during the winter, and homes aren’t as well ventilated during the cold months. These factors can make winter allergies worse.
Treating Winter Allergies
Medications like Singulair and Nasonex are just as effective for treating winter allergies as they are for treating spring, summer, and fall allergies. You can also help mitigate winter allergies by keeping your home as free of allergens as possible. Reduce dust mites by washing bed sheets, linens, and stuffed toys in hot water each week. Keep any pets in the home out of your bedroom. Take steps to eliminate mold in your home, by using a dehumidifier and cleaning up mildew or mold with bleach.
If your winter allergies are particularly severe, you may want to consider getting an allergy vaccine. Allergy vaccines don’t cure allergies, but they help your immune system build up a tolerance to the allergen so that you’ll need to experience a much greater level of exposure than before in order to feel symptoms. Allergy vaccination is a long process — the initial vaccination series takes 24 weeks, and you’ll need to get boosters for three to five years after that. But for some allergy sufferers, the relief they bring is worth it.
If you’ve got a lingering cold or flu that you just can’t seem to shake, it’s possible you’re actually suffering from winter allergies. Respiratory symptoms that last for longer than two weeks and aren’t accompanied by a fever may be due to dust, mold, pet, or other allergies that can worsen in the winter, when people spend more time indoors. If you think you have winter allergies, talk to your doctor about the best treatment option for you.