Allergies or Cold

Too often when someone has the sniffles, others assume they are contagious. However, those sniffles are often caused by something not contagious at all. For those suffering from congestion, runny nose, sneezing, and coughing, a cold may be the first thought, but it actually may be your body fighting off airborne particles.

If you don’t know the difference between allergies or a cold, the following information may be useful.

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What Is a Cold?

Known as “the common cold,” a cold is a virus, passed through the air when someone who has the virus coughs or sneezes. It can also be passed by touching something that has been touched by an infected person or through hand-to-hand contact. By touching an opening in your face after such contact, you can contract the virus.

Recovery from a cold is usually quick, so if symptoms persist after a week or two, a person should seek medical treatment, as the virus may have progressed to something more serious.

What Are Allergies?

When a person is sensitive to certain substances, the immune system releases chemicals, called histamines, to fight off perceived intruders. What these allergens are depends on the person, but histamines create symptoms similar to those seen in a cold, including congestion, runny nose, sneezing, and coughing.

Over time, an allergic person learns to differentiate between an allergy and a cold, based on a variety of factors. Some of those factors may include the time of year and the trademark symptoms of allergies. Below are details on the difference between viral symptoms and allergy-induced ones.

Allergies vs. Cold

Allergies can last to varying degrees all year, with some patients waking up every morning with some form of congestion or itchiness. For many suffering from allergies, symptoms will be much more dramatic during certain times of the year. In the spring, for instance, certain airborne pollens can cause allergy sufferers to experience extreme symptoms.

If someone near you is sneezing and coughing due to allergies, you cannot catch it. There is nothing contagious about an allergic reaction. Allergies generally cause quite a bit of itchiness, including itchy eyes and a scratchy throat due to postnasal drip. This also causes the sore throat and coughing symptoms that can cause an allergic person to mistake his or her symptoms for a cold.

With a cold, symptoms come on fast and taper off fairly quickly, when compared to allergies. Colds are often accompanied by body aches, which are not experienced by allergy sufferers, and sometimes fever, another symptom that doesn’t affect those with allergies. A cold sufferer also won’t experience the itchiness that comes with allergies.

Another condition, a sinus infection, can occur when bacteria causes the sinuses to become infected. This can be brought on by either a cold or allergies—both of which cause mucus to build up in the sinus cavities and create blockages. Sinus infections can cause extreme allergy and cold-like symptoms and, if left untreated, can last for weeks and even months.


Decongestants are often prescribed for any condition that causes sinus congestion. This is meant to break up the congestion and dry up the sinuses. This may relieve symptoms and prevent sinus infections, but it is intended for short-term use. Decongestants work by reducing blood flow within the sinuses helping  to reduce inflammation and reduce the production of mucus, but they can actually cause congestion to worsen if taken long-term. Decongestants are sold under the brand names Sudafed, Mucinex, and Claritin-D.

Antihistamines are intended to battle the histamine reaction in those suffering from allergies in order to relieve symptoms. They are also used to help those suffering from allergic reactions to food and bee stings in order to reduce swelling. Antihistamines are sold under the brand names Benadryl and Zyrtec. Because some antihistamines can cause drowsiness, they are usually not given for daily use.

Those suffering from sinus infections will likely be prescribed antibiotics to help fight the infection, as well as decongestants to reduce symptoms. If sinus infections become recurrent, a physician may recommend surgery to help promote better sinus draining. Physicians may perform a CT (computed tomography) scan or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) of the sinuses to determine the underlying problem and find the proper treatment.