The arrival of spring brings longer days, warmer weather … and an explosion of pollen that torments those of us with allergies. It can be hard sometimes to know whether you’re suffering from a cold or an allergy. Dr. Sloan Manning, medical director for Novant Health urgent care and express care clinics in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, provided some tips on how to know the difference.

1. While the symptoms can overlap, they also have some distinct differences.

Sneezing and itchy, watery eyes most likely point to an allergy, while feeling achy or feverish means you most likely have a cold.

2. How quickly your symptoms hit can indicate whether it’s a cold or allergy.

Allergic symptoms like sneezing or watery eyes can occur soon after exposure to allergens such as pollen. A cold, on the other hand, takes a few days to develop after exposure.

“With a cold, it’s usually three days coming,” Manning said. “It stays with you for three days and it’s three days leaving.”

Colds can last a few days to a week until people begin to feel like they’re on the mend. Seasonal allergies can last a few months, particularly if you spend a great deal of time outdoors and are in contact with your allergy triggers.

3. Treatment options differ.

Colds are caused by viruses and not bacteria, so antibiotics will not help a cold. Doctors suggest that people with colds stay home, get plenty of rest and drink fluids like water or tea to stay hydrated.

Over-the-counter medications can help relieve some of the symptoms of a cold and let you get some sleep. However, be careful not to over medicate when taking decongestants. Many decongestants can elevate your blood pressure and heart rate, so don’t take them if you have high blood pressure.

“Now that spring has sprung, I am beginning to see more patients presenting with signs and symptoms of allergies and common colds," said Dr. Terrance Johns, an internal medicine specialist at Novant Health Thomasville Medical Associates. "Common allergy symptoms — allergic rhinitis or allergic rhinosinusitis — include bouts of sneezing, runny nose, nasal congestion and/or obstruction and are often accompanied by itching of the eyes, nose and palate. Postnasal drip, cough, irritability and fatigue are also common. I tend to see a lot of people in this part of the state who suffer from these symptoms during this particular time of the year when pollen counts are higher.”

Allergies can be treated with decongestants, antihistamines or nasal sprays.

Manning said the best over-the-counter treatments are steroid nasal sprays, such as Flonase and Nasacort.

“Medical studies have shown these are the most effective treatments,” Manning said. “Flonase provides more anti-inflammatory action compared to Claritin and Allegra.”

Claritin, Allegra, Zyrtec and Alavert are all popular brands of over-the-counter antihistamines available to treat seasonal allergies. Older antihistamines with brand names like Benadryl or Chlor-Trimeton are also effective for runny noses and sneezing but cause drowsiness. People with medical conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes should talk with their doctors before taking these drugs.

Manning recommended that patients layer their relief, starting with the nasal sprays and adding antihistamines as symptoms progress. If there is no improvement, then it’s time to see a provider. If you don’t have a primary care provider, find one at NovantHealth.org/doctor.