Is it fall allergies, a cold or the flu?


A few sneezes, an itchy throat and a cough or two is all it takes for your brain to start asking those questions: Was that just allergies? Could I have the flu? Did I catch a cold? (No option is exactly desirable.)

We asked Casey Curtis, MD, an allergist at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, to break down the differences among each condition and when you should consider calling your doctor.

He says until the first few frosts arrive, pollen allergies, cold or flu are all possible reasons for your sneezes and coughs.   

Knowing fall allergies

While spring allergies get a lot of attention, their autumn cousin can be often overlooked, but Dr. Curtis says life can be just as difficult for those with fall allergies.

Tree pollen is the major trigger for spring allergy sufferers, grass pollen affects summer allergy patients and weed pollen causes the most difficulties for those with fall allergies. Other allergens, such as dust mite or pets, can cause allergy symptoms year-round.

Dr. Curtis is quick to point out that some of his patients are affected by allergies in multiple seasons.

Main symptoms:

  • Long lasting, usually several weeks or months
  • Itchiness (nose, ears, eyes)
  • Red, watery eyes
  • For pollen allergies, symptoms are worse outdoors

He said time of day can make a big difference, with symptoms often worse in morning hours for patients allergic to pollen.

Dr. Curtis recommends people with allergy symptoms to make an appointment with their doctor or allergist.

“I have patients say they thought their allergies were normal – until they got better. If you’re not happy with your quality of life, let’s find out what’s going on,” says Dr. Curtis.

Is it the flu or just a cold?

Dr. Curtis advises everyone to get an annual flu vaccine, which greatly reduces your chances of catching the flu.

“Cold or flu can be tough for people to tell apart initially. They have similar symptoms like fatigue, sore throat and headache,” explains Dr. Curtis.

So when should you go to the doctor? Dr. Curtis says if you have high risk factors for complications of flu, such as extremes of age (elderly or early childhood), lung disease such as asthma or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, liver or kidney disease, or other chronic medical conditions then it’s a good idea to get evaluated by your doctor. Also, developing symptoms after known contact with somebody with the flu should prompt evaluation sooner. 

Spotting the difference

How can you tell the difference between each condition? Dr. Curtis put together this chart to explain:


Bottom line: If there are ever questions in distinguishing these conditions, Dr. Curtis says you should seek advice from a medical professional. 


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