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While it is the winter months that people usually most associate with such maladies as cold and flu, the warmer and sunnier time of year brings a new threat: that of seasonal allergies, such as hay fever. When one adds to this the ongoing and unpredictable COVID-19 threat, it’s clear that even during the spring and summer, there can be a lot of scope for our immune systems to take a battering.
This, though, brings us neatly onto the subject of what exactly our immune system’s relationship is with ailments like colds and hay fever. When you find yourself coming down with those classic symptoms of a runny nose, sneezes and congestion, what does it say about your immune health, and the steps you need to take to better protect it?
Is a cold or hay fever, for instance, an indication that your immune system is too weak and needs to be strengthened, or instead that it is too strong, as you might have heard being said about allergies?
Allergies and colds are not the same!
To explore this subject further, we need to be absolutely clear about what seasonal allergies and colds actually are. The fact that allergies and colds do share some symptoms means you might end up mistaking one for another – for example, failing to realise that the “cold” you seem to suddenly develop at the same time every year may actually be a seasonal allergy.
However, the reality is that they are very different diseases. While the common cold is caused by a virus, hay fever is an allergic reaction to pollen, usually when it comes into contact with the sufferer’s mouth, eyes, nose and throat.
Closer scrutiny of the exact symptoms and circumstances of your ailment should help you to determine whether it is likely to be a cold or allergy that you’re suffering from.
If your symptoms clear up after a week or so and the environment to which you are exposed has remained the same, there’s a good chance that it was a cold, given that the symptoms of an allergy will continue to rage for as long as you keep on encountering the allergen.
So, what does all of this have to do with your immunity?
It’s important to appreciate the above differences between seasonal allergies and colds, because their relationship to the immune system is also so different.
It’s well-known that constantly catching colds, or struggling to shake off colds, can be a sign of a weak immune system. By contrast, allergies are caused by – if anything – the very opposite of a weak immune system. In effect, the cause of allergic disease is an active immune system that reacts to things that are usually harmless, such as pet dander, certain foods or – as in the case of hay fever – pollen.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe the immune response that produces allergic disease as “misguided” rather than “too strong”. Nonetheless, you should hopefully now have some insight into the very real differences in the immune dynamic between colds and hay fever.
Adding to the complexity of these conditions’ relationship with the immune system, though, is that while allergies are not in themselves indicators of a weak immune system, ongoing allergies that are not treated effectively may serve to weaken the immune system over time.
This, in turn, could heighten your susceptibility to viruses and other germs. Indeed, as cruel as it might seem, it’s possible to suffer from a cold and hay fever simultaneously, with the risk of this being heightened for those with especially weak immune systems.
Both seasonal allergies and colds, then, are useful reminders of the importance of giving your immune system that little extra TLC it might need, including by sleeping well and pursuing a supportive diet, whether you are currently suffering from one of these conditions and are seeking to recover quickly, or wish to minimise your risk of future infections.
Many of us probably have an instinctive sense of what we think the immune system...