Personal Health

Is It Allergies or Cold Symptoms? Here's How to Tell the Difference

Sometimes, people aren't even aware they have allergies — they just chalk up a runny nose to a short-lived cold and move on. So, when you're sneezing and sniffling, how do you know if you're suffering from allergies or cold symptoms? They often seem similar, but there are a number of distinct differences between an allergic reaction and the common cold. Learn how to identify them to ensure you receive proper, effective care.

The Causes of Allergies and Colds

Allergies and the common cold may share some symptoms, but their origins are completely different. A cold is caused by a virus, while allergies are the result of your immune system's response to an allergen, such as pollen or animal dander. Since the common cold is contagious, the best line of defense is to avoid others with the illness. Allergies, however, aren't contagious, and they differ from person to person based on individual responses to allergens.

Is It Allergies or Cold Symptoms?

It takes a bit of detective work to figure out whether it's allergies or a cold that's making you sick, but a few key differences can lead you to the correct diagnosis.

The common cold takes a few days to show symptoms after infection, and the illness generally lasts anywhere from two days to two weeks. Colds often arise and spread during the colder months. Your body will produce white or yellow mucus as your immune system fights the condition, and you'll often experience symptoms other than basic congestion, such as a fever, cough, sore throat, muscle aches, and general fatigue.

When it comes to allergies, symptoms will show up immediately after exposure to the alergen, and depending on the duration of that exposure, will last anywhere from a few days to a few months. Allergies often rear their heads around the same time every year due to the onset of seasonal occurrences (such as pollen in the spring). If your nose runs and produces mucus, it won't resemble that of a cold; rather, it will be more thin and watery. Your eyes will run and feel itchy, and you may experience other symptoms such as sneezing, itching, rashes, or asthma.

Treatments for Allergies and Cold Symptoms

Once you've determined whether you have allergies or a cold, you can decide how to treat your symptoms.

For a cold, try an over-the-counter medication, drink lots of water, and get rest; it will eventually clear up on its own. Treating allergies, however, is slightly trickier. If you know the cause, an allergy-specific over-the-counter medication should help. In some cases, though, people go a long time without even knowing they react to certain allergens.

If you've been suffering from allergies for a while but don't know what's making you sick, an allergy test will help you determine what might be causing the reaction. During the test, you will be exposed to several allergens in small concentrations, either in or under your skin or in your blood. If a reaction occurs, you know it's an allergen to avoid. Your doctor might also prescribe nasal steroids or allergy shots for additional relief.

It's tempting to pass off coldlike symptoms as just that: a cold that will bother you for a few days. However, now that you know allergies' signs and symptoms, you can get yourself checked out and find a way to treat any allergic reactions you're having. Because who wants to have that runny nose every time warm weather rolls around? Nobody.

Posted in Personal Health

Julia is a freelance journalist specializing in health, tech, lifestyle, and culture reporting. Her work has appeared in, USA Today College,, and Healthline, among other publications.

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*This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or physician before making health care decisions.