Healthy Living

Allergies vs. Cold: How to Tell What’s Causing Your Symptoms

Apr 5 2023

You feel it coming on – the headache, the runny nose, sneezing. It’s your annual cold. You get one at the same time every year. However, what if it isn’t a cold, but seasonal allergies? Taking a closer look at the symptoms you’re experiencing can help you determine if it’s allergies vs. a cold.

Allergies vs. cold

Seasonal allergies and the common cold share many of the same symptoms. This can make it hard to identify what you’re actually suffering from. However, it’s important to know what’s ailing you so you can treat it effectively.


Many people come down with a cold at roughly the same time each year. However, if they come on suddenly, you may want to talk to your doctor about the possibility of seasonal allergies.

Your stuffy, runny nose may not tell you the answer, but rather how long you have it and what you’re congested with. Allergies can last longer than a cold and mucus is usually thin and watery. Congestion is commonly accompanied with sneezing and itchy eyes, the latter of which is usually a tell-tale sign you don’t have a cold.

Common colds

Unlike allergies, the common cold is caused by a virus and your body has to fight off the virus before your illness goes away. Usually, a cold lasts about seven to 10 days and can include thick mucus, sore throat and coughing. While less common, one way to know for sure that what you have isn’t allergies is a fever – the inflammation caused by a cold can lead to elevated body temperature or a fever.

How do you know if it’s allergies or a cold?

As we’ve said, many of the symptoms of both allergies and colds are similar. Some are less common depending on what you have:

Symptom Allergies Cold
Fever Never Sometimes
Fatigue or tiredness Sometimes Sometimes
Sneezing Common Common
Itchy eyes Common Uncommon
Sore throat Uncommon Common
Nasal congestion Common Common
Runny nose Common Common
Body aches and pains Never Sometimes
Cough Sometimes Common


However, there are other factors that might help you identify your illness. Timing, duration and intensity tend to vary between colds and allergies. If symptoms usually feel about the same for as long as you have them, you can probably assume it’s allergy related as opposed to a cold, which commonly starts off feeling intense and then tapers as your body fights the virus that caused it.

As we mentioned, colds tend to last about seven to 10 days before clearing up, but allergies can last as long as the trigger for them remains.

How to treat allergies vs. a cold

Once you know whether you have allergies or a cold, then it’s time to determine what treatment you need. In both cases, medicine won’t treat the ailment itself, but will rather treat only the symptoms.


Until whatever you’re allergic to goes away or airborne levels drop to a manageable level, you’ll likely feel the effects. Start by reducing your exposure to the allergen:

  • Spend less time outside
  • Avoid tasks that stir up the air around you, such as gardening, lawn mowing or dusting
  • Keep windows and doors closed
  • Use a dehumidifier
  • Vacuum often

If your symptoms are intense enough to warrant allergy medication, there are plenty of over-the-counter treatments you can use, including:

  • Oral antihistamines
  • Corticosteroid nasal sprays (for short-term use)
  • Saline nasal rinsing
  • Nasal spray
  • Oral decongestants


Until your body is able to fight off the virus, you’ll likely feel the effects of a cold. However, there is no treatment to fight a cold itself, but some can alleviate the intensity of your symptoms or shorten the duration.

Some treatments include:

  • Staying hydrated by drinking a lot of water, juice, clear broth or warm lemon water with honey
  • Avoiding alcohol, coffee and other caffeinated drinks
  • Gargling with saltwater to alleviate a sore throat
  • Using cough drops or honey to suppress a cough
  • Nasal drops and sprays to relieve congestion
  • Resting
  • Using a humidifier to add moisture to the air

However, sometimes your symptoms need help from medication. Some over-the-counter medicines can help speed up relief, such as decongestants, antihistamines, cough suppressants and pain relievers. Keep in mind that these can have side effects and should not be taken for a long period of time, nor will they shorten the duration or prevent you from getting a cold entirely.

When to call the doctor

When it comes to both allergies and colds, you may need to speak with your doctor at some point. Children with allergies or a cold may need to be seen by their pediatrician sooner than an adult due to a higher risk of dehydration. Additionally, children can’t take most cold and cough medications, so they may need to be seen in the office for other treatment options.

Allergy symptoms can last for an extended period of time, especially during months when environmental allergens tend to be at higher levels. However, if you experience them often or they seem to hang on for a long time, you may require allergy testing to pinpoint specific allergens and treatment options.

As for colds, if your symptoms don’t improve or get worse after seven to 10 days, it’s time to give the doctor a call. Colds can lead to infections, such as sinus or upper respiratory infections, bronchitis or pneumonia.

Related Posts

Please review our Terms of Use before commenting.