If you have congestion and a runny nose, or you’re sneezing and coughing, your first thought may be that you have a cold. Yet, these are also signs of allergies.
By learning the differences between allergies and colds, you can find the right method of relief — and fast.
Since colds and allergies have many of the same symptoms, it may be hard to tell the two conditions apart.
What are they?
A cold, also known as the common cold, is caused by a virus. Many different types of viruses are responsible for colds. While the symptoms and severity may vary, colds generally share some basic characteristics.
Despite its name, you can get a cold at any time of the year, even in summer. The
Allergies occur when your immune system has an adverse reaction to certain substances. When you’re exposed to an allergy trigger, known as an allergen, your immune system releases multiple chemicals called histamine. This release of histamine is what causes allergy symptoms.
Every year, more than 50 million U.S. adults experience allergies. Seasonal allergens such as tree, grass, and weed pollen are common triggers, but you might be allergic to certain substances year-round.
Other allergy triggers can include:
- dust mites
- animal dander or saliva, such as from a cat or dog
- foods, such as peanuts, tree nuts, milk, and eggs
The following table summarizes some of the ways you can tell a cold from an allergy:
aches and pains
fever, in some cases
breathing difficulty or wheezing
blocked or runny nose
|How long it lasts||until you remove the trigger|
|When it is most likely||fall and winter in the United States||spring, summer, and fall, depending on the trigger and where you live||can occur at any time of year|
|Is it contagious?||yes||no|
Allergies and colds share some common symptoms, such as:
One way to tell what’s making you feel unwell is to pay attention to the symptoms that they don’t share.
Colds are more likely to cause:
- aches and pains
- sore throat
- a stuffy nose
More severe colds can also cause headaches, fevers, and body aches.
Allergies are more likely to cause:
- itchy eyes
- skin rashes, such as eczema or hives
How long do they last?
Another way to tell whether you have allergies or a cold is by the duration of your symptoms.
Recovery from a cold is usually quick. The average duration of a cold is
Allergies won’t go away unless you get treated or remove the trigger. Seasonal allergens tend to cause symptoms 2 or 3 weeks at a time.
How contagious are they?
Colds are transmitted through virus droplets that a person sheds when they cough or sneeze when they have a cold.
An allergy is not contagious. If you have a sensitivity or allergy to a substance, you can develop a reaction. Someone who does not have the same sensitivity or allergy will not develop a reaction.
The ‘allergic salute’
Another telltale sign of allergies — especially in children — is called the “allergic salute.” Kids with allergies have an itchy nose, which they often rub with an upward hand motion that looks like a salute.
Time of year
The time of year can provide clues to the cause of your symptoms. You’re
Allergies can also strike at any time of year, but pollen allergies are most common during the spring months. Grass allergies are highest in late spring through summer, while ragweed allergies occur during late summer and fall. The likelihood of an allergic reaction depends on where you live and which allergen is responsible.
You don’t usually need to see a doctor for a cold, but if you do make an appointment, your symptoms will likely be enough for them to confirm a diagnosis.
- symptoms last longer than 10 days
- you have severe or unusual symptoms
- you’re at high risk of complications, for example, because of heart disease or a compromised immune system
- a child of 3 months or younger has a cold with a fever, lethargy, or both
For allergies, you may need to see a primary care doctor, an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor, or an allergist. The doctor will first ask about your symptoms. Severe or life threatening allergic reactions often require the care of an allergy specialist.
Various tests can diagnose allergies. A skin test can be used to determine your allergy triggers. Sometimes, doctors or allergy specialists may also use blood tests to diagnose allergies, depending on your age and other health conditions.
If you have a severe allergic reaction that leads to swelling in the mouth or throat and difficulty breathing, you may have anaphylaxis, a life threatening condition.
If you know you have an allergy and carry an epinephrine autoinjector, use it, call 911, or go immediately to the nearest emergency room.
Your body will get rid of the cold virus over time. Since antibiotics only kill bacteria, they won’t work on the viruses that cause colds. In most cases, the only
Some medications can help relieve your symptoms while a cold runs its course.
Cold remedies include:
- cough syrups and over-the-counter (OTC) cold medications can help soothe a cough
- decongestant nasal sprays
- pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol)
Pharmaceutical cold and cough remedies are unlikely to benefit children under 4 years, and they may be harmful. Vapor rub, zinc sulfate, nasal saline irrigation, and buckwheat honey may be beneficial, but check with a doctor before using any products for a young child.
Honey is not suitable for children under 1 year, as there may be a risk of botulism, a type of food poisoning.
Ask a doctor before taking any OTC cold medication, especially if you also take prescription medications, have any existing health conditions, or are pregnant.
Don’t use cold medications for a long period of time. Using them for extended periods can cause side effects such as rebound congestion.
You can also try home treatments to relieve a cold, such as:
- drinking plenty of fluids like water, juice, and herbal tea
- avoiding caffeine and alcohol, as they can lead to dehydration
- using saline nasal sprays
- using nasal rinses, like a neti pot
- gargling with salt water
- getting a cool-mist humidifier
One very effective way to prevent allergy symptoms is to avoid your triggers. If you can’t avoid your triggers, you can take medications to relieve your symptoms.
Antihistamines work by blocking the effects of histamine. Examples
- fexofenadine (Allegra)
- diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
- cetirizine (Zyrtec)
- loratadine (Claritin)
Be aware that some older antihistamines can cause drowsiness. Either look for a nondrowsy formula or consider taking these medications at night.
Decongestants work by shrinking swollen nasal membranes to relieve sinus congestion. They’re sold under names such as:
- pseudoephedrine (Sudafed)
- guaifenesin-pseudoephedrine (Mucinex DM)
- loratadine-pseudoephedrine (Claritin-D)
Decongestants come in pills and nasal sprays. However, nasal decongestants such as oxymetazoline (Afrin) can make congestion worse if you use them for more than 3 days in a row.
These medications continue to be one of the best ways of managing and treating both seasonal and year-round allergies.
Eye drops can relieve itchiness and watering.
Allergy shots gradually expose you to small amounts of the allergen. This exposure helps to desensitize your body to the substance. These can be a very effective long-term solution for eliminating allergy symptoms.
As with cold symptoms, saline sprays and humidifiers can help relieve certain allergy symptoms.
While some allergy and cold symptoms are similar, these are two very different health conditions. Knowing which one you have can help you get the right treatment, so you’ll be on your way to feeling better quickly.
If your symptoms don’t improve with treatment, or if you have a rash or you’re running a fever, see a doctor to rule out a serious medical condition.
Both colds and allergies can cause viruses and bacteria to collect in the sinuses and lower airways, which can lead to more serious infections.
If your symptoms last more than 10 days or are getting worse, see a doctor.