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Cold vs. Allergies: How Can You Tell?

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Illustration by Bob Al-Greene

Cold and allergies share many symptoms, so it may be tricky to know what’s causing those sneezy, sleepy, stuffed up feelings. Luckily, there are some key signs that help determine a diagnosis to help get on the right road to recovery. Just remember: We're no doctors, so if something just doesn't feel right, see a medical professional to get everything sorted out.

One Of These Things Is Not Like the Other — Why It Matters

Sure, they may share some symptoms, but colds and allergies are like apples to oranges: While the common cold is caused by a virus, allergy symptoms are immune system responses to allergens like pollen, dust, or Fluffy’s hair. The easiest way to tell the difference between the two is how long they last — which unfortunately doesn’t help when symptoms first strike! A common cold usually lasts no longer than ten days, while allergies can pester people for months on end. Seasonal allergies usually bloom the same time every year (hellloo, spring!) while colds are more prominent in the winter and fall. No surprise there!

Still, each sickness has its main contenders to win worst symptom ever. With a cold, coughing and congestion are almost always evident, whereas itchiness of the mouth, eyes, and throat are easy indicators of allergies. The type of mucus associated with each is particular, too. (Gross, we know. Just hold onto those tissues!) A yellowy mucus usually accompanies a cold, while people with allergies deal with thin, watery snot. Other symptoms unique to the common cold include muscle aches, fatigue, and fever, whereas an all day sneeze fest (gesundheit!) usually points to pollen. 

Sneaky Sickness — Your Action Plan

Feeling under-the-weather? Here's a guide to help decipher between the two pesty illnesses:

The Common Cold:

    • Common:  Cough, sore throat, runny/stuffy nose, sneezing
    • Sometimes: Fatigue, aches/pains
    • Rarely: Fever, itchy eyes

Allergies:

    • Common: Itchy eyes, runny/stuffy nose, sneezing
    • Sometimes: Cough, sore throat, fatigue
    • Never: Fever, aches/pains

Figuring out what’s causing us to stay under the covers is only half the battle, though! To help prevent a cold, remember to frequently wash those hands and stay away from others who are sick — colds are contagious! (Unlike allergies.) If it’s too late and the sniffles are already a-comin’, get plenty of rest and fluids, try an over-the-counter cold medicine, and yes — chicken noodle soup with a side of zinc — could help [1]. As for allergies, staying away from allergens is the best bet for staying sneeze-free: Shut the windows and turn up the AC to avoid pollen coming into the house, and rinse off after dog-sitting [2]! Try taking some over-the counter antihistamines and decongestants as well, and check pollen rates before heading outdoors [3].

Remember: It’s always best to check with a doctor to figure out what’s causing those sniffles and sneezes, too. If a fever just won’t go away, a cold lasts longer than ten days, or if those allergy symptoms never seem to go away, it may be more complicated than cold vs. allergies. Getting better is key to continuing that half-marathon training plan and sipping a summer vodka-tonic — just not at once, please!

Have you ever suffered from allergies and thought it was a cold, or vice versa? How'd you find out?

I'm the marketing director at Greatist, and when I'm not hanging at HQ with my best buds (aka co-workers...) you can find me training for... Read More »

Works Cited

  1. Zinc for the treatment of the common cold: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Science, M., Johnstone, J., Roth, D.E., et al. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 2012 May 7. [Epub ahead of print]
  2. Home air-conditioning, traffic exposure, and asthma and allergic symptoms among preschool children. Zuraimi, M.S., Tham, K.W., Chew, F.T., et al. Department of Building, School of Design and Environment, National University of Singapore, Singapore. Pediatric Allergy and Immunology, 2011 Feb;22(1 Pt 2):e112-8
  3. Antiallergic anti-inflammatory effects of H1-antihistamines in humans. Assanasen, P., Naclerio, R.M. University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, Clinicla Allergy and Immunology, 2002;17:101-39.