Cold or Allergies: What Is the Difference?

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Cold or AllergiesWinter is starting to slide away and with the onset of spring, comes the start of the sneezes. Your head is full of mucus, you’re sneezing and maybe have some watery eyes.

It’s a spring cold, and it sucks. Or, maybe it’s allergies. The symptoms are similar, and this time of year is the start of allergy season. So which is it, a cold or allergies?

We’re going to take a look at cold vs allergy, the differences and similarities between them, and the different treatment methods of colds and allergies.

What Is a Cold?

In the broadest of terms, a cold is a virus. One of over 100 viruses. They are passed from one person to another via the air or touch. Colds can cause you to sneeze, have watery eyes, chest congestion, and a host of other symptoms. Bad colds can also come with fevers, body aches, and chills.

Luckily, they don’t last very long. From start to finish, colds tend not to last much longer than a week to 10 days. The average adult will get two or three colds a year; children may get more than that because their immune systems are still forming. And contrary to popular belief, colds can occur any time of the year, regardless of what the weather is doing.

A lot of that also sounds like allergies, doesn’t it? So, if what is above is what a cold is, what exactly are allergies?

What Are Allergies?

Allergies are a result of your body reacting badly to something.  Essentially, your body is reacting badly to something and has released a chemical called histamines to fight what it perceives as an enemy. Allergies can cause sneezing, watery eyes, coughing, and sore throats. Pollen from trees, grass, and weeds, as well as animal dander, dust, mold, food, and even some chemicals in medications, can cause reactions.

Unfortunately, allergies do not follow any time frame; they can bother you for a week, they can bother you for a month. Pollens tend to only be active at certain times of the year, so there may be a relief once those periods are over. You can always be allergic to food, animal dander, dust, and mold, regardless of the time of year.

Cold or Allergy: The Similarities

Part of the problem with colds and allergies is they can have very similar symptoms. Colds and allergies can produce a runny nose and sneezing. They can also cause both coughs and sore throats.

Cold or Allergy: Differentiating Signs

Let’s go back to the scenario we discussed at the beginning. It’s spring, and you’ve started sneezing and have watery eyes, is it a cold or allergies? How can you tell the difference?

There are two factors that differentiate them.

1. Length of symptoms

The biggest difference between a cold vs allergies is how long they last. A cold will run its course for about a week. Allergies, on the other hand, can go on for as long as the allergens are activating your body’s histamine.

2. Initial effect of symptoms

Did the symptoms hit you lie a train? If so, then it is probably allergies. If it was more of a slow build, it’s more likely a cold.

These are the symptoms of both a cold and allergies.

  • Congestion: Allergies tend to lead to a runny nose, and very rarely does it result in congestion of the sinus system. If the mucus is thick, it’s more than likely a viral infection like a cold.
  • Aches: Allergies will rarely cause your body to hurt; that is primarily a symptom connected with colds.
  • Fevers: Colds may occasionally cause fevers; allergies will never cause a fever.

Treatments of Colds vs Allergies

Now that we know the similarities and differences between colds and allergies, it’s time to explore the differences between treatments for both of them.

  • There isn’t a treatment for colds. Viruses cause colds, and for the most part, you have to ride it out. Some over-the-counter drugs can help minimize the symptoms of the cold, but for the cold virus itself, there is no cure.
  • Allergies don’t have a cure either, but there are ways of controlling them. Antihistamines, for example, can help control the histamines that the body creates. Nasal steroids may also be used to help control the nasal issues that come with allergies. In more extreme circumstances, your doctor can administer shot for your allergies that can contribute to blocking the symptoms of your allergies.
  • You can avoid some allergies, like food and animal dander. If you are allergic to cats, don’t buy one, or go where they are. Unfortunately for colds, there is no similar option. You can try and take precautions like washing your hands, but if you get a cold, you can’t avoid it after that.
  • Tests can be done to find out if you have allergies. Your doctor can administer a test to figure out what your allergies are, thus allowing you to determine what treatments may help your symptoms or avoid the allergen altogether (like in the case of food or animals). Unfortunately, in the event of a cold, the doctor will tell you just to wait it
  • In bad cases, the doctor may prescribe a decongestant if your allergies are blocking your sinuses. The drawback with that is after long-term use, decongestants can make the congestion worse when it reappears.

Cold vs Allergies: Different but They Are Both a Pain

Colds are not allergies, and allergies are not colds. Some treatments can keep the symptoms at bay, and those treatments are different. Unfortunately, there’s not a cure for either. However, you can stave off the symptoms if you know which one you have. Regardless, you may want to stock up on tissues.

Faris, S. and Cherney, K., “Is It Allergies or a Cold?” Healthline, July 7, 2015;
Leicht, L., “Do I Have a Cold or Allergies? 6 Telltale Signs,” Daily Burn, April 30, 2016;
de Pietro, M., “Cold or Allergies? How to Tell the Difference,” Medical News Today, February 12, 2017;