Can Allergies Cause a Sore Throat?

Published August 9th, 2021 by Chris Riley
Fact Checked by
Camille Freking
Medically Reviewed:
Dr. Angel Rivera

Approximately 20 percent of Americans suffer from some form of environmental allergies, which are symptoms that occur in response to exposure to things like pollen, mold, smoke, dust mites, pet dander, and more. 

However, some people don’t know that they have allergies because many allergy symptoms overlap with the symptoms of a cold or flu. Therefore, it can be hard to know the true reason you feel under the weather. 

For example, can allergies cause a sore throat?

What Causes Allergies?

Allergies are among the most common causes of chronic illness in the United States, affecting more than 50 million Americans each year. While some people experience serious and potentially life-threatening allergies to food, medication, or insect stings, allergies affecting the nasal passages are more common. 

While allergies to food, medication, or insect stings are typically marked by symptoms such as swelling, skin irritation, hives, a rash, or a serious condition called anaphylaxis, the types of allergies most people experience produce different symptoms.

Commonly referred to as allergic rhinitis, or hay fever, allergies affecting the nasal passages are associated with cold-like symptoms. Common symptoms of allergic rhinitis include a runny nose, nasal congestion, sinus pressure, watery or itchy eyes, cough, postnasal drip, itchy nose, wheezing, fatigue, and sneezing. 

These symptoms occur as a result of exposure to an allergen. An allergen is a substance that would normally be considered harmless to most people, but they cause an immune reaction in others. When the body of a person with allergies detects the presence of an allergen, the immune system begins to produce a protein called IgE. Then, the body starts to produce a chemical called histamine.

Histamine causes the symptoms that are commonly associated with an allergic rhinitis attack, such as itchy, watery eyes, sneezing, and a runny nose.

Allergic rhinitis can be experienced on a seasonal basis or year-round (known as perennial allergies). Some people have both seasonal allergies and perennial allergies. 

Common triggers of allergic rhinitis include:

  • Ragweed pollen (common in fall)
  • Tree pollen (common in early spring)
  • Grass pollen (common in late spring and summer)
  • Fungi and mold spores (seasonal and perennial depending on whether they are indoors or outdoors)
  • Dust mites, pet dander, and cockroaches (common year-round, but can be worse in the winter with reduced air circulation indoors)

Can Allergies Cause a Sore Throat?

Most people are familiar with common symptoms of allergies such as a runny nose, sneezing, or itchy, watery eyes. Some acute or severe allergies can also cause skin irritation and hives. Allergies can also cause other symptoms that are less well known and commonly associated with viruses and other illnesses. 

Symptoms commonly associated with allergies include:

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sneezing
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Cough
  • Headache
  • Sore throat

As noted above, one of the symptoms that is commonly associated with allergies is a sore throat. Sore throats can also be caused by viruses and infections, so many people assume that if they are experiencing symptoms that include a sore throat, they must be sick rather than experiencing allergies. 

However, sore throats commonly occur in response to allergies as a result of post nasal drip.

Postnasal drip occurs when the body produces excess mucus as a result of exposure to an allergen (in the case of allergies) or a viral or bacterial infection. When excess mucus is produced, the body normally attempts to swallow it subconsciously. 

However, there may be situations in which the mucus drips down the back of the nasal passages into the throat, where it may pool. When this occurs, a person is said to have postnasal drip.

One of the most common symptoms of postnasal drip is a sore, irritated throat. While it might feel like your throat is infected, the pain results from the swelling of the tonsils and other tissues in the throat. Some people may feel like they have a lump in their throat, while others will feel irritated and uncomfortable. 

The best way to relieve symptoms of a sore throat caused by allergies is to stop the excess production of mucus that contributes to postnasal drip.

How Do I Know If I Have Allergies or a Cold?

Because there is considerable overlap between the symptoms caused by allergies and the symptoms caused by a cold, it can be challenging to know which is causing you to feel under the weather. There is also some overlap between the symptoms of allergies, colds, and the flu.

One significant difference between the symptoms of allergies compared to colds and the flu is that allergies never cause a fever. If you are experiencing a fever, your symptoms are not the result of allergies and are likely to result from some type of infection. 

To determine whether you have a cold or a more significant infection, check the temperature of your fever. Colds may sometimes result in a low grade fever (below 100 degrees Fahrenheit), while the flu typically causes a high fever (100 to 102 degrees or higher) that can last between three and four days. 

Allergies also do not cause body aches. While some colds can cause mild body aches, body aches are more commonly associated with the flu. Headaches are also not usually a symptom of colds or allergies but may occur with the flu.

However, there are some symptoms that are unique to allergies, such as itchy, watery eyes, hives, and skin rash and irritation. Colds or the flu will not cause these symptoms, but allergies will. 

Regardless of what condition is causing your symptoms, it’s important to seek medical attention if you find that your symptoms last for an extended period of time or start to get worse. Allergy symptoms will last until exposure to the allergen ends or allergy medication is taken, while symptoms of a cold typically run their course in seven to ten days and the flu lasts one to two weeks. 

How Can I Treat Allergy Symptoms?

The most foolproof way to keep allergy symptoms under control is to avoid exposure to the allergens that cause your symptoms. 

However, that’s not always practical. For example, individuals who are allergic to the pollen of ragweed, a common plant, are unlikely to be able to avoid going outdoors for the entire flowering season. On that note, they may be able to limit their time outdoors by bringing their workouts inside, hiring someone to mow the grass, and avoiding outdoor events whenever possible. 

People who suffer from allergy symptoms associated with indoor mold may not be able to move to a new house or work in a different office building. In these cases, medications can be used to treat allergy symptoms.

There are three common types of medications that are used to treat allergy symptoms: antihistamines, decongestants, and corticosteroids. 

  • Antihistamines include medications like diphenhydramine, the active ingredient in Benadryl. Antihistamines work quickly to block the action of histamine, the chemical responsible for producing allergy symptoms after exposure to an allergen.
  • Decongestants, including pseudoephedrine, can be used to reduce nasal congestion and associated symptoms by narrowing the tiny blood vessels that line the nasal passages. These blood vessels dilate and inflame the surrounding tissue during an allergy attack. Decongestants work quickly to reduce nasal symptoms. Nasal decongestants should not be used for more than three days in a row, as they can cause a rebound effect that can make congestion worse.
  • Corticosteroid treatments, such as fluticasone, include nasal sprays that apply medication directly to the inflamed tissues in the nasal passages. Unlike antihistamines and decongestants, corticosteroid medications can take between two to four weeks before they work efficiently to control allergy symptoms, so they are better suited for the long-term prevention of symptoms and are best taken every day. Corticosteroids work by reducing the inflammation in the tissues of the nasal passages, which helps to diminish the production of excess mucus and allows patients to breathe more easily.

Antihistamines, decongestants, and corticosteroids are all available both over the counter and as prescription medications. 

If you find that you experience allergy symptoms on a regular basis, either seasonally or year-round, talk to your doctor about what medications they recommend to help control your symptoms.

Summary

Allergies can cause many uncomfortable symptoms, including a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, fatigue, weakness, cough, headache, and sore throat. These symptoms occur when a person with allergies is exposed to an allergen, which is a normally harmless substance that causes an immune reaction in some people.

Allergy symptoms can be controlled by avoiding exposure to an allergen, but if that is not possible, medications like antihistamines, decongestants, and corticosteroids can help.

Sources:

Cold, Flu, or Allergy? | National Institutes of Health 

Allergy Facts | Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America 

Hay fever - Symptoms and causes | Mayo Clinic 

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