Colds and allergies can share similar signs. Here’s are some ways to tell them apart.
Achoo! You’re sneezing uncontrollably, your nose is running like a faucet, and you feel, just … blah. These icky symptoms keep rearing their ugly head, which leaves you scratching yours, wondering: Why do I keep catching colds …. or, wait, could I have seasonal allergies?
Colds and allergies can share similar symptoms, like runny nose, sneezing, and fatigue, but they’re actually very different conditions.
Here’s how to tell the difference between a cold and an allergy, so you can get the proper treatment and get rid of those symptoms for good.
What Is a Cold?
Colds are caused by viruses. Colds are minor infections of the nose and throat caused by more than 200 different viruses, with rhinovirus being the most common. “Fifty percent of the time, especially in adults, it’s a rhinovirus, says Clifford Bassett, MD, an allergist at NYU Langone Health and author of the book The New Allergy Solution. “There are many different types and that’s the bad news—that you can have a cold this week and next month have another cold.”
Colds come on suddenly. “Cold usually kicks in pretty abruptly. You may feel lousy, sore throat, runny nose, fatigue, achy, feverish a little bit, and that comes on very quickly over 12 to 24 hours,” says Dr. Bassett.
Colds resolve themselves within a week or two. Colds resolve for the most part in five to seven days, but they may last up to two weeks, says Dr. Bassett.
Colds are more common in fall and winter months. “Colds are more prevalent during the fall and during the prolonged winter period [when] we spend a lot of time indoors and are exposed to cold viruses,” says Dr. Bassett.
What Are Allergies?
Allergies are an abnormal immune reaction. “With allergies it’s completely different. There’s no fever involved, it’s not an infection,” says Dr. Bassett. It’s an immune response to things that are normally harmless, such as pollen, molds, and dust mites.” For people with allergies, these substances react with your immune system, causing histamine and other chemical substances to be released, which then causes various symptoms.
Itchiness is a symptom that’s unique to allergies. “Itchiness is one of the big differentiating symptoms between allergies and a common cold. Itchiness of the eyes, itchiness of the nose, along with other typical symptoms, sneezing, runny nose, post nasal drip, and so forth—all of these things go along with seasonal allergies or even year-round allergies,” says Dr. Bassett.
Allergies can last for weeks—as long as an allergen is present. For example, ragweed or grass pollen seasons last for six weeks, so if you’re allergic to those substances, your symptoms may last that long too.
Allergies come with the seasons. Seasonal allergies are triggered at certain times of year, most commonly in the spring, summer, and early fall, and are usually caused by pollen from trees, weeds, and grasses. In many areas of the United States, spring allergies begin in February and last until the early summer.
How to Treat and Prevent Colds
Even though there’s no cure for the common cold, there are many ways to manage your symptoms. Feel better faster by getting plenty of rest and fluids, and eating more of these cold-fighting foods. Runny nose, sneezes, and aches and pains can be helped with OTC decongestants and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines.
To prevent catching a cold, wash your hands often with soap and water, avoid contact with anyone with a cold, and make sure you’re not guilty of these seemingly innocent cold-triggering habits.
How to Treat and Prevent Allergies
“[With] allergies, [we have] so many wonderful solutions in terms of prevention and proper treatment that reduce symptoms,” says Dr. Bassett. Allergy symptoms can be treated with home remedies like nasal irrigation, and medications like antihistamines, nasal steroids, or, for a longer-term approach, immunotherapy. “I’m a big fan of nasal saline spray when you have mucus. [It] thins out the mucus to promote better drainage in your nose and sinuses, and [helps] avoid complications such as a sinus infection,” says Dr. Bassett.
You can also prevent allergic reactions by avoiding things that cause them, such as pollen, house dust mites, mold, and pet dander.
Cold vs. Allergies: Still Not Sure?
“If you have persistent nasal symptoms, sinus symptoms, headache, or fever, see a doctor [and] have an examination,” says Dr. Bassett.
Dr. Bassett is an allergist and clinical assistant professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine and on the teaching faculty at Weill Cornell Medical College.
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Sometimes cold symptoms can be confusing.
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And they can be very mild,
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and it may take a day or so in some patients
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to know whether it is a cold, infection, or an allergy.
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A cold is largely made up of hundreds of different viruses,
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and most common, 50% of the time, especially in adults,
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it's a rhinovirus.
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There's many different types.
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And that's the bad news, that you can have a cold this week
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and next month have another cold.
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Cold usually kicks in pretty abruptly.
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You may feel lousy, sore, throat, runny nose,
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not feel yourself, fatigue, achy, feverish a little bit,
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and that comes in very quickly over 12 to 24 hours.
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It also resolves for the most part.
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Five to seven days you start to feel better,
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and it may last up to two weeks.
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With allergies it's completely different.
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There's no fever involved.
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It's not an infection.
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What it is, it's an immune response
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to things that are normally harmless,
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such as pollen, molds, dust mites, and so forth.
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So, with allergy it comes on in a pattern.
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You're in the park on a high pollen day.
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You're exposed to a lot of tree pollen.
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And we know through testing you're already sensitive
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and ready to react to tree pollen and the reaction occurs.
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The most common allergy symptoms,
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whether it be a seasonal or indoor allergy,
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would be sneezing, runny nose, nasal congestion.
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That's the number one bothersome symptom,
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nasal stuffiness that leads to poor sleep at night.
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Itchiness of the eyes, watery, puffy eyelids, and so forth.
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Itchiness is one of the big differentiating symptoms
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between allergies and a common cold.
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Itchiness of the eyes, itchiness of the nose,
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along with other typical symptoms:
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sneezing, runny nose, postnasal drip, and so forth,
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itchy red eyes.
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All of these things go along with seasonal allergies
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or even year-round allergies.
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Allergies are even more present during the seasons,
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spring, summer, fall.
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Cold are more prevalent clearly during the fall
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and during the prolonged winter period in many places
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when we spend a lot of times indoors
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and we're exposed to cold viruses.
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If you have persistent nasal symptoms, sinus symptoms,
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headache, fever, see a doctor.
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See your provider.
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Have an examination.
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Colds are largely supportive care.
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That means there's no magic bullet.
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There really is no fix.
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I'm a big fan of nasal saline sprays
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when you have mucus to thin out the mucus,
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promote better drainage in your nose and sinuses,
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and avoid complications such as a sinus infection.
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Allergies, so many wonderful solutions
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in terms of prevention and proper treatment
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that will reduce symptoms that really work.
Sorting Out Seasonal Allergies. Chicago, IL. Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine, American Osteopathic Association. (Accessed on January 15, 2021 at https://doctorsthatdo.org/sorting-seasonal-allergies)
Common Cold. Washington DC. U.S. National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus. (Accessed on January 15, 2021 at https://medlineplus.gov/commoncold.html)Is It a Cold or Is It Allergies? Bethesda, MD. National Institutes of Health, MedlinePlus. (Accessed on January 15, 2021 at https://medlineplus.gov/magazine/issues/spring15/articles/spring15pg26-27.html)