You’ve been practically religious about literally spring cleaning your entire house (even under the bed!). But if you keep telling your roommate that your constant sneezing is “just allergies” and they really don’t believe you anymore, it’s understandable to wonder if your allergies can actually make you sick.
How Are Allergies Similar To Being Sick?
When symptoms first creep into your day, it can be difficult to tell whether you have allergies or a cold. “Allergies and an illness both activate the immune system to respond to a foreign substance to protect the body,” says Dr. Sanjeev Jain, M.D., a doctor double-board certified in immunology and internal medicine at Columbia Asthma and Allergy Clinic. When your immune system is hyped up, allergies and an actual infection may give you the same puffiness, runny nose, and those uncomfortable sneeze-cough hybrids. Both allergies and having a cold will likely mess with your sleep and exhaust you, too.
What’s The Difference Between Having Allergies And Getting Sick?
The big distinction between having allergies and being sick is that you can’t actually give anyone your allergies — but you can give them your cold. “Allergies are not contagious and, while annoying, are usually harmless,” Dr. Jain says. “However, most viruses and bacteria illnesses are contagious.”
To try and detect a difference, pay attention to certain key symptoms. “If you have a fever or swollen lymph nodes, it is likely an infection,” says Dr. Tania Elliott, M.D., a clinical instructor of medicine and immunology at NYU Langone. It’s also about when symptoms start. “Allergies come the same time every year and are worse when you are exposed to an allergen (e.g. when you are in a park around freshly cut grass or exposed to a cat or dog),” she explains. You’ll want to pay attention to how long your symptoms last, too. Allergies will stick around for a few months, Dr. Elliott says, while upper respiratory infections typically won’t stick around longer than a week or two.
If you have itchy or watery eyes, clear mucus, a runny nose for more than a week, and your symptoms are consistent each day, you're likely dealing with allergies, which can usually be relieved with over-the-counter allergy medications. Allergy symptoms generally stay the same, whereas cold symptoms tend to intensify and peak before they ultimately subside.
Can Allergies Make You Sick?
There’s another reason to get your allergies in check, other than not wanting to be sneezing for four months straight. When irritants make their way into your nasal passages, it's basically open season for cold viruses. Dr. Elliott explains that with allergens afoot, “You produce more mucous, your sinuses get filled and clogged with fluid, and it sets up the ideal environment for viruses and bacteria to settle in and cause infections.”
This is largely because allergies are putting your immune system on high alert, which is stressful for your body. “Any stress on or in the body that activates the immune system can make you more susceptible to actually getting sick,” Dr. Jain says. “Untreated allergy symptoms can create constant stress on the body, which causes the immune system to prioritize fighting off the foreign allergen instead of recognizing and fighting off viruses and bacteria that enter the body.” In other words, allergies distract your body from the “real enemies” — viruses and bacteria that can make you sick — which can make you much more susceptible to developing an actual illness.
One way to combat allergens, so you're less likely to catch a spring cold, is to keep your nasal passages lubricated. You can do this by using a saline nasal spray or sleeping with a humidifier at night. It's also important to keep your immune system healthy and strong as you head into allergy season by wiping down surfaces, drinking plenty of water, washing your hands per pandemic protocols, and getting enough sleep. So take your antihistamines if you need them, and get a lot of sleep even if you don’t — either way, you’ll be setting yourself up for a less drippy springtime.
Dr. Sanjeev Jain, M.D., doctor double-board certified in immunology and internal medicine, Columbia Asthma and Allergy Clinic
Dr. Tania Elliott, M.D., clinical instructor of medicine and immunology, NYU Langone
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