How Do I Know if I Have an Illness or an Allergy?

woman blowing her nose in tissue

An illness, also referred to as a disease, is a condition that disrupts the body's normal functioning. Bacteria, viruses, parasites, or other pathogens typically cause illnesses.

Illnesses can affect various systems and organs in the body and may lead to a wide range of symptoms such as fever, sore throat, cough, aches, and fatigue. Treatment for illnesses often involves addressing the underlying cause, such as taking antibiotics to combat a bacterial infection or antiviral medication to treat a viral infection.

On the other hand, an allergy is an abnormal immune response to a substance that is typically harmless. Allergies occur when the immune system mistakenly identifies an environmental irritant, known as an allergen, as a threat to the body.

Common allergens include pollen, pet dander, certain foods, and insect venom. When a person with allergies comes into contact with or ingests an allergen, their immune system releases chemicals such as histamine, which can cause multiple symptoms.

Allergy symptoms can differ significantly according to the type of allergy.

Allergic Rhinitis (Hay Fever) Symptoms

Allergic rhinitis, also called hay fever, is an allergic response affecting the nasal passages and often causing discomfort and irritation. The most common triggers include pollens, dust mites, pet dander and molds. Signs of allergic rhinitis include the following symptoms and can be year round:

  • Nasal congestion: One of the primary symptoms of allergic rhinitis is nasal congestion. This response occurs when the blood vessels in the nasal passages become swollen and inflamed, leading to a blocked or stuffy nose. Individuals may also experience a runny nose, with clear nasal discharge, due to increased mucus production. This excess mucus can further contribute to congestion and discomfort.
  • Sneezing: Allergic rhinitis can cause frequent and repetitive sneezing, often triggered by exposure to allergens such as pollen, dust mites, or pet dander. Sneezing is the body's natural response to expel irritants from the nasal passages.
  • Itching: Itchy eyes, nose, and throat are frequently reported by individuals with allergic rhinitis. Itchy eyes may be accompanied by redness and watering while itching in the nose and throat can lead to persistent throat clearing or coughing.
  • Sinus inflammation: Some individuals with allergic rhinitis may also experience sinus pressure and facial pain. This reaction can be due to swelling and congestion in the sinuses, which are cavities around the nose and forehead. The pressure and pain may worsen when bending forward or lying down.
  • Eye reactions: Allergic rhinitis can also affect the eyes, leading to a condition known as allergic conjunctivitis. Itchy, red, and watery eyes are common symptoms of allergic conjunctivitis, which can occur alongside nasal symptoms or on its own.

Food Allergy Symptoms

Symptoms of food allergies can vary from mild to severe and can affect different parts of the body. Common symptoms of food allergies include:

  • Skin reactions: Itching, hives, redness, or swelling of the skin are common signs of a food allergy. These reactions can occur shortly after consuming the allergenic food.
  • Digestive issues: Nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhea are often reported by individuals with food allergies. These symptoms may occur within a few minutes to a few hours after eating the allergenic food.
  • Respiratory problems: Wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, or a tight feeling in the throat are respiratory symptoms that can be caused by a food allergy. In severe cases, anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction, can occur, leading to difficulty breathing and a drop in blood pressure.
  • Cardiovascular symptoms: Food allergies can also cause rapid heartbeat, lightheadedness, or fainting. These symptoms are more commonly associated with severe allergic reactions.
  • Oral symptoms: Itchy or swollen lips, tongue, or throat are oral symptoms that can occur after consuming an allergenic food. It may also lead to a tingling sensation in the mouth.

Insect Sting Allergy Symptoms

Insect sting reactions can be either localized (experienced at the site of the sting) or systemic (experienced throughout the body). Localized allergic reactions include the following symptoms:

  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Tenderness
  • Itch

Systemic allergic responses require immediate medical intervention – the symptoms can be severe and sometimes life-threatening. Systemic symptoms include the following:

  • Hives or welts: Raised, itchy bumps that appear on the skin and may spread.
  • Swelling: Swelling that extends beyond the sting site, such as in the face, lips, tongue, or throat. This condition can lead to difficulty breathing or swallowing.
  • Difficulty breathing: Shortness of breath, wheezing, or tightness in the chest. This type of reactivity can be a sign of a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis.
  • Dizziness or fainting: Feeling lightheaded, dizzy, or losing consciousness.
  • Digestive issues: Gastrointestinal symptoms that may accompany a systemic allergic reaction.

Common Illnesses Often Mistaken for Allergies

While both viral respiratory illnesses and allergies can cause discomfort and disrupt daily life, it is important to differentiate between the two. If you are unsure about the cause of your symptoms, it is advisable to consult with a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment plan.

Allergy Symptoms Vs. Flu Symptoms

Allergy and flu symptoms can often be mistaken for each other due to their similarities. However, there are key differences that can help distinguish between the two.

Flu symptoms are caused by the influenza virus. Common flu symptoms include a dry cough, fever, aches, and fatigue. Unlike allergies, flu symptoms usually appear suddenly and can be severe. In addition to respiratory symptoms, the flu can trigger gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Another difference between allergy symptoms and flu symptoms is the duration. Allergy symptoms can persist for weeks or even months if the allergen is present. Flu symptoms tend to be at their most severe 24-48 hours after their initial appearance and taper off in under two weeks.

It's important to note that allergies and the flu can affect people differently. While some individuals may experience mild symptoms, others may have more severe reactions. If you are unsure about your symptoms or they persist, it is always best to consult with a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

Allergy Symptoms Vs. Cold Symptoms

Cold symptoms are caused by a viral infection. The rhinovirus usually causes the common cold, although many other viruses can also cause cold symptoms. Cold symptoms include sneezing, sore throat, nasal congestion, coughing, and a runny nose. Unlike allergy symptoms, cold symptoms typically develop gradually over a few days, usually lasting for about a week.

One way to differentiate between allergy symptoms and cold symptoms is the presence of a fever. While it is common to have a low-grade fever with a cold, it is rare to have a fever with allergies. Additionally, the color of nasal discharge can provide some clues. Clear and watery discharge is more common with allergies, while thick and colored discharge is more typical of a cold.

Allergy Symptoms Vs. COVID-19 Symptoms

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. The symptoms of COVID-19 can vary but generally include aches, cough, congestion, difficulty breathing, fatigue, fever, loss of taste or smell, congestion, sore throat, nausea, or vomiting. It is important to note that not everyone infected with COVID-19 will experience symptoms, and some individuals may only have mild symptoms.

While both allergies and COVID-19 can cause respiratory symptoms like cough and congestion, there are some key differences to be aware of. Allergies typically do not cause fever or body aches, which are more commonly associated with viral infections like COVID-19. Additionally, symptoms like loss of taste or smell are not commonly associated with allergies but can be a clear indication of COVID-19.

If you are unsure whether your symptoms are due to allergies or COVID-19, it is crucial to consult with a healthcare professional. They will be able to evaluate your symptoms, consider your medical history, and conduct appropriate testing to determine the cause of your symptoms. It is also critical that you maintain your Covid vaccination schedule and get your flu shot each year.

Seeing an allergist is crucial for managing allergy symptoms and improving overall well-being. With their specialized knowledge, allergists can accurately diagnose allergies, develop personalized treatment plans, and provide ongoing support. By partnering with an allergist, individuals can gain control over their allergies and lead a healthier, more comfortable life.

Find the closest Allergy Partners location to schedule a consultation with an allergist near you