Cold or Allergy - How to Tell the Difference

How can you tell the difference between a common cold or allergy?

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Author: Patricia Bratianu, RN PhD RH-AHG

Your nose is stuffy or running. You feel tired. Is it a cold or is it allergies? Let’s take a look at ways to tell the difference.

Colds are caused by viruses. They are contagious. Allergies are caused by substances that you are sensitive to. Your body releases histamines which cause the symptoms. Allergies are not contagious.

What time of year is it? Colds may occur at any time, but are more common in winter. Allergies may also occur at any time, but often occur in spring or fall

Do others around you have colds? If so, you may have contracted one from them. 

Do you get the symptoms at the same time each year? Is the pollen count high? If so, you may have an allergy.

Let’s look at some of the similarities and differences in the actual symptoms that colds and allergies produce.

Both may produce stuffy or runny noses. Allergies usually produce clear mucus. Colds generally produce clear mucus as well; however, sometimes colds produce yellow mucus. If your mucus is green you should see your health care provider as you may have developed a secondary infection.

Are your eyes itchy and watering? Eye involvement is more common with allergies, since it is a histamine reaction.

How long have you had symptoms? Colds generally last from a few days to two weeks. Allergies may last for just a day or for months.

Are you coughing? Sometimes people with allergies cough, but not always. Coughs are almost always present with a cold.

If aches and pains occur, it is most likely that you have a cold. Allergies do not cause aches and pains. You may have a headache with allergies due to a stuffy head but your joints and muscles will not hurt.

Sometimes colds produce low grade fevers. Allergies do not cause fevers.

Sore throats may occur with allergies or colds. They are more common in the presence of colds.

Both colds and allergies may cause fatigue. Fatigue is usually more pronounced with a cold.

Cold symptoms may develop slowly, over a few days. Allergic symptoms may occur immediately after exposure. Sometimes allergies develop slowly as well. Seasonal allergies may start slowly as pollen counts are low, but as pollen counts rise, if you are allergic to pollen, the symptoms exacerbate.

By considering the above symptoms, you may be able to determine if you have a cold or allergies. Treatment is different for each. If you are unsure of which one you have, or have health questions, see your health care provider.

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