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Ear, Nose, and Throat Disorders

Ragweed Season Dilemma: Is it a Cold, Allergy or Sinusitis?

Your eyes itch, your nose is stuffy and your throat is sore. In short, you're miserable. Is it a summer cold, a sinus infection or an allergy?

With ragweed season approaching, it's important to be able to tell which is which so you can know what course of treatment to take.

Probably the most significant allergen in North America is ragweed, and ragweed season starts in mid-August and lasts until the first frost. People who are sensitive will start having itchy or watery eyes, itchy nose, sneezing during this period.

Still, the discomfort might not necessarily be allergy-related. It could be a cold, or it could be a sinus infection.

How to Tell the Difference

With a cold, the throat is more sore than itchy, and there is more general muscle ache and discomfort than with allergies. An infection in the sinus cavity can make the head feel full and congested, leading to a pressure headache.

Allergies tend to cause clear, runny, thin mucus, while colds and sinus infections both can have discolored mucus. People often come in with a cold thinking they must have a bacterial infection, but that may not be the case.

A cold generally lasts five to 10 days, but is usually starting to get better after five days. So the rule of thumb is if after five days you start to get worse, or if you’re still symptomatic after 10 days, then you probably don't have a cold. You probably have a bacterial infection. Such an infection would be treated with antibiotics.

With allergies, the treatment generally involves antihistamines, which fight the histamines that are released during an allergic reaction. There are several antihistamines that are available over the counter and do not cause drowsiness. In addition, there are nasal sprays that are available by prescription that are also effective for allergies.

And, of course, you can avoid exposure by keeping yourself in an air-conditioned environment when pollen counts are high. So typically, if it's a dry, windy day it's not a good time to be outside if you're allergic to ragweed.

Allergies can lead to sinus infections as a result of a stuffy nose that blocks sinuses.

So it's important to keep your allergies under control, and it's important to try to treat a bacterial infection if you get one in your sinuses. But with colds, the treatment remains simply supportive therapy.

In other words, there's still no cure for the common cold.

This article originally appeared in UC Health Line (08/07/08), a service of the University of Cincinnati Academic Health Center Public Relations Department and was adapted for use on NetWellness with permission, 2006.

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Last Reviewed: Aug 11, 2008

Allen M Seiden, MD Allen M Seiden, MD
Professor of Otolaryngology, Director of Division of Rhinology and Sinus Disorders, Director of University Taste and Smell Center, Director of University Sinus and Allergy
College of Medicine
University of Cincinnati