Sneezing, coughing, and a runny nose are frustrating symptoms, and they can also be confusing symptoms if you’re not sure why they’re happening. Many people who experience symptoms like a stuffy nose and cough assume these are the signs of a cold, especially during the winter months. But the truth is that allergy symptoms can appear in a very similar way, and can even develop just as suddenly, year-round.
There are a few key differences between colds and allergies that can help you determine which one might be causing your symptoms. The type of symptoms, duration of symptoms, and time of year can give you clues to which condition may be causing your issues. Learn how to tell if you have a cold or allergies, and discover the best way to treat each one, so you can get the relief you need as quickly as possible.
When in doubt, an experienced Ear Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist will also be able to quickly determine the root cause of your issues and help you find the best treatment option to give you relief.
It’s Probably Allergies If…
Allergies have certain characteristics that can set them apart from the common cold. You probably have allergies if you experience:
- Clear or watery mucus (instead of thick or discolored)
- Itchy or watery eyes
- Itchy skin
- Stuffy or runny nose lasting longer than a week
- Symptoms show up in a pattern (every fall, only around animals, etc.)
If the mucus in your nose is watery and stays clear, this is a sign of allergies. Mucus associated with a cold often becomes thick or discolored. It is also rare to experience itchy eyes or skin hives when dealing with a cold, so these are telltale signs of allergies. Symptoms from a cold usually clear up in 7 to 10 days, but allergies will continue with the same symptoms for weeks or longer, if untreated. If your symptoms tend to appear or worsen in certain situations, such as mowing the grass or in a house with a cat, your issues are most likely caused by allergies.
What Is a Cold?
A cold is an infection in the body that is caused by a virus. There are many different types of viruses that can cause the “common cold.” While symptoms and severity can vary slightly, any cold will generally have the same characteristics.
Key characteristics of the common cold:
- Spreads through tiny droplets in the air when a sick person coughs or sneezes
- Symptoms often include sore throat and fever in addition to coughing, sneezing, and a runny/stuffy nose
- More severe colds can also cause headaches and body aches
- Recovery usually takes an average of 7 to 10 days
- People with allergies may be more prone to catching colds
You can catch a “cold” at any time of the year, even in summer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that the average healthy adult catches around two to three colds each year. Young children may get even more colds because of their less mature immune systems. If symptoms last more than two weeks, the virus may have contributed to a more serious condition, such as a sinus infection or bronchitis.
What Are Allergies?
Allergies are our body’s overreaction to certain irritants, also called allergens. When the body’s immune system senses a threat from the allergen it releases a chemical called histamine. Histamines are what trigger the inflammation, itching, sneezing and runny nose that are common as allergy symptoms.
Key symptoms caused by allergies:
- runny or stuffy nose
- watery, itchy eyes
- itchy throat, mouth or ear canals
- ear congestion or pressure
- postnasal drainage
- hives or skin irritation
- sore throat
- trouble swallowing
Seasonal allergens such as tree, grass, and pollen are common triggers, but you can also be allergic to certain substances that affect people year-round such as dust mites, pet dander, mold, or certain foods. Symptoms from year-round allergies can appear at seemingly random times, but typically can be recognized as a pattern once the allergen is determined.
Table of Symptoms
The table below displays the likelihood of each symptom presenting itself due to allergies versus the common cold.
Differences Between Allergy and Cold Symptoms
Both allergies and the common cold cause many of the same symptoms, so it can sometimes be tricky to tell them apart. It can be helpful to focus on how they are dissimilar, honing in on any symptoms you may be experiencing that the two do NOT always share.
Colds are more likely to cause:
- aches and pains
- sore throat
Allergies are more likely to cause:
While all of these symptoms can technically be experienced with either condition, it’s important to realize that certain symptoms are much more likely to develop with allergies, while others are more probable with a viral cold.
Other Factors to Consider
Time of Year
The time of year that symptoms appear can provide clues to the cause of your symptoms. You’re most likely to catch a cold during the fall and winter, but it’s still possible to come down with one in the spring and summer, too. Allergies can also strike at any time of year, but pollen and grass allergies are most common during the spring and summer months.
Duration of Symptoms
How long your symptoms last can also tell you whether you likely have allergies or a cold.
The common cold will usually clear up in about 7 to 10 days, but allergy symptoms usually won’t go away unless you either treat them or remove yourself from the allergen trigger. Seasonal and year-round allergies can cause symptoms for weeks or months at a time.
Diagnosing Colds and Allergies
Seeing a doctor for a cold isn’t usually necessary, but if symptoms persist beyond a week or two it may be a good idea to see your primary care doctor or an experienced ear-nose-throat (ENT) doctor who specializes in these symptoms and can quickly determine the cause of your issues.
If it is suspected that you are suffering from allergy symptoms, an easy allergy test can be conducted to determine the exact triggers or allergens that cause your allergies. Skin tests are a common form of testing, but blood testing can be done at home or in an office visit and is extremely accurate.
If the doctor suspects your continued symptoms are stemming from a cold but have caused bigger issues, such as sinusitis or strep throat, they may conduct an endoscopy or other minor procedures to diagnose the condition and determine next steps.
How to Treat the Common Cold
The only thing that usually can heal a cold is time. Your body will fight to get rid of the virus over the course of a week or so, and there’s not much that can be done to help it. Antibiotics only work on bacterial infections, and since colds are viral (not bacterial) they’re not an effective treatment. Time, rest, and fluids are the road to recovery.
However, there are medications that can help relieve your symptoms and discomfort while the cold runs its course. Cold symptom treatments include:
- cough syrups and over-the-counter (OTC) cold medications*
- decongestant or saline nasal sprays*
- pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol)
You can also try these home remedies to help with cold symptoms relief:
- drinking more fluids like water, sugar-free juice, and herbal tea
- avoiding caffeine
- using nasal rinses, like a neti pot
- gargling with saltwater
- cold compress
- cool-temp humidifier
*Cough syrups and OTC medications aren’t recommended for children under 4 years old, while nasal sprays aren’t recommended for children under age 6.
How to Treat Allergies
There are plenty of ways to find relief from allergy symptoms. If avoiding the irritant you are allergic to is not an option, consider the many treatment options for allergy symptoms below.
Antihistamines work by blocking the release of histamine. They come in the form of oral pills, liquids, nasal sprays or eye drops. Once antihistamines medications are in your bloodstream, they can prevent the release of histamines and quickly reduce the symptoms triggered by allergens.
- fexofenadine (Allegra)
- diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
- cetirizine (Zyrtec)
Some older antihistamines can cause drowsiness, so it’s important to take these medications before bed or select a specific non-drowsy formula.
Decongestants work by reducing the nasal inflammation that causes many frustrating allergy issues like stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, and post-nasal drip. Shrinking the swollen nasal membranes helps relieve sinus congestion and regulate normal airflow which can relieve your nasal symptoms. These treatments come in pills and nasal spray form. However, nasal decongestants such as oxymetazoline (Afrin) can make your congestion worse if you overuse them.
- pseudoephedrine (Sudafed)
- guaifenesin-pseudoephedrine (Mucinex DM)
- loratadine-pseudoephedrine (Claritin-D)
Nasal corticosteroids bring down swelling in the nose by blocking inflammation right in the nose. These treatments work quickly because they don’t require absorption into the bloodstream. Corticosteroids are widely considered one of the best ways to manage and relieve both seasonal and year-round allergy symptoms. They also lower the number of allergy-activated immune cells in the nasal passages.
Eye drops can temporarily relieve itchiness, redness and watering, but are also next recommended for extended use as they can cause drying and damage. They often work by constricting the blood vessels in the eyes.
Immunotherapy works by gradually exposing you to increasing levels of an allergen which allows your immune system to slowly build a tolerance. This treatment is a more long-term approach to allergy relief, and is a great option for anyone who suffers from severe allergy symptoms or year-round allergies. Immunotherapy can relieve allergy symptoms over a period of time and can even prevent new allergies from developing.
Allergy shots are one form of immunotherapy. They must be administered by a professional and thus require frequent visits to the doctors office for a period of many years. They are extremely effective, but also have been known to occasionally cause side effects or reactions to injection.
Allergy drops, or sublingual immunotherapy, are another more modern form of immunotherapy which can be taken daily under the tongue at home. Allergy drops are just as effective as allergy shots, but they require only annual visits to the doctor and have shown no history of side effects or negative reactions. Using allergy drops can help patients get relief from their symptoms with much less hassle and at a much higher rate of treatment completion.
Just as with cold symptoms, other home remedies and treatments can help to alleviate discomfort from allergy symptoms. These include saline sprays, cold compress, and humidifiers.
Start Finding Relief From Your Cold or Allergy Symptoms By Knowing the Difference
When you’re experiencing uncomfortable symptoms like sneezing, coughing, and stuffy nose, it can be difficult to know exactly what is causing your discomfort. Both allergies and the common cold can cause these frustrating issues, but they each require different approaches for treatment and relief. Understanding the nature of colds vs allergies and knowing the key differences between likely symptoms can help you get to the source of your symptoms, so you can take the right steps towards treatment.
An experienced ENT specialist can help you quickly diagnose the root cause of your symptoms. If you’re struggling to tell allergy symptoms from cold symptoms, schedule an appointment with an expert. An ENT doctor will guide you through allergy testing and treatment to find the right path to relief for you.