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Is It a Cold or Allergies?

Find Out What Ails You by Assessing Your Symptoms

You’re sneezing. Your nose is running. Your eyes are watering. And you’re feeling run down. Is it a cold, allergies, or something else?

When you've got the sniffles, it’s important to be able to distinguish between the causes of your symptoms so that you know which treatment to seek, whether or not you’re contagious, whether you should see your health-care provider, and how to prevent your symptoms from coming back.

Colds and allergies, quite obviously, have very different causes. Although the symptoms of both ailments occur when your body’s immune system reacts to a foreign body, in the case of colds, this foreign body is a virus, while for allergies, the culprit is generally something benign, such as dust mite particles or pollen. When exposed to allergens, your body recognizes the foreign substance as harmful, so it creates an immune response as if you were sick. So how do you tell the difference?

This chart, from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, shows the differences and similarities between symptoms of colds and allergies. Note that the chart describes common symptoms of allergies to airborne particles only, like dust, pollen, mold spores, and pet dander, not necessarily to food or drug allergies, which can present very different symptoms. Note that the three most distinguishing factors to pay attention to are body aches, itchy eyes and a sore throat.

Symptom Occurrence in Colds Occurrence in Seasonal Allergies
Cough Common Sometimes
Body aches Slight Never
Fatigue, weakness Sometimes Sometimes
Itchy eyes Rare or never Common
Sneezing Common Common
Sore throat Common Sometimes
Runny nose Common Common
Stuffy nose Common Common
Fever Rare Never

So You Have a Cold?
The treatment of a cold focuses primarily on symptom management while the immune system fights off the infection. Common measures include over-the-counter pain relievers such as Tylenol, throat sprays, lozenges, and chicken soup. Support your immune system by eating healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, getting ample rest, drinking enough fluids, and managing your stress levels. There is no cure for the common cold, and antibiotics won’t help because they don’t kill viruses.

According to the National Institutes of Health, if you have a cold, you are most contagious and should stay at home for the first 2 to 3 days, and you are usually not contagious by days 7 to 10. Colds usually last from 3 to 14 days. To prevent cold reoccurrence, wash your hands often, stay away from people who are having cold symptoms, and support your immune system.

Think It May Be Allergies?
The treatment of allergies focuses primarily on avoidance of the allergen, and on symptom management. To prevent allergies, talk with your health-care provider to try to determine your triggers, and take measures to avoid them. You may also want to ask about allergy medications, if your symptoms are constant or unmanageable. In contrast to the common cold, allergies are not contagious, so as long as your symptoms are manageable you don’t need to stay home.

In most cases, you don’t need to see a doctor if you are having symptoms of a cold or allergies, unless your symptoms become unmanageable, if breathing becomes difficult, if your symptoms get worse, or if you don’t start to get better within 7 to 10 days.

Is it a Cold or an Allergy? from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.
Common Cold, from Medline Plus.
Was Grandma Right? Chicken Soup’s Health Benefits, from the Office of Research Services of the National Institutes of Health.

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Member Comments

  • Great info. Thanks.
  • Very timely article. In NC pine pollen is REALLY strong. The whole state turns pale yellow. So earlier this week when I developed a scratchy throat and a "tickle" that made me want to cough, I said it was just allergies. WRONG! Has now turned into a full-blown cold with headache, earaches and low grade fever. I take Cold-Eze but just wish I'd figured it out sooner,
  • Very informative, while reading it I realized it was already known; however, this chart and artical made it come together a lot better, Thank You
  • HILLSLUG98239
    I'd suggest following the advice to boost your immune system if you have allergies as well as if you have a cold. Having seasonal, dust, and pet allergies frequently means there's a fair amount of goo in your sinuses; that's an excellent medium for an infection. (For me, a series of sinus infections was how my healthy-care provider figured out I had allergies.) Boosting your immune system may help you stave off the secondary infections; it may even help lesson the symptoms of seasonal allergies.
  • SIARA321
    Good article, its not exactly right though.
  • now I know its cold I have.
  • My sinuses are a little more complicated. I have some allergies, I get colds, I sometimes get the flu in spite of the shots, and my sinuses react to changes in the weather. So when I get sinus issues, I get to figure out if it's the weather, my allergies, a cold, or the flu. If I guess wrong and let it drag on too long, it will either turn into a sinus infection or else settle in my throat and take forever to get rid of.

    It's actually not that uncommon for allergies to cause a sore throat if there are sniffles involved. Some of them run down the throat and cause irritation.
  • Thanks for the information. I have had lingering symptoms and was wondering if it was allergies. The fever and raw throat at the outset answered my question. Thanks!
  • I would like to see one that was titled "is it a cold or the flu?"
  • I've been feeling miserable for weeks now. My mucus is clear. Never thought of allergies...Now to find out what I am allergic to.
  • In my case, the ENT said that if there's color (i.e. yellow or green) in the mucus during the day there's some sort of sinus infection involved. I have nearly year-long allergies, and would often get sinus infections from them. For me, the trick was to stop taking the decongestants my family doctor had recommended. Decongestants dry the mucus membranes and were causing my narrower-tha-usua
    l sinus passages to plug up.
  • STORMY724
    My doctor told me if it starts with a runny nose it's an allergy & when it starts with a sore throat it is a cold. In my case I've found that to be true, but maybe it isn't always for everyone.
    Carolj35-usually they say that, but I have severe allergies and often the mucous can run yellow and I have had fever with allergies, but then again, I can be a bit of an odd duck.

About The Author

Liza Barnes Liza Barnes
Liza has two bachelor's degrees: one in health promotion and education and a second in nursing. A registered nurse and mother, regular exercise and cooking are top priorities for her. See all of Liza's articles.