How to Tell the Difference Between Allergies and a Cold

How to Tell the Difference Between Allergies and a Cold

Cold vs. Allergy: how do you tell the difference? It’s a question that many people ask when they are suffering from symptoms that don’t seem to go away or get any better, no matter what they do. The answer is not always easy to determine, but there are some warning signs you can look for in order to make an educated guess about which it might be. In this blog post, we will explore the similarities and differences between colds and allergies so that you can figure out why your body won’t stop feeling sick!

What is a cold?

A cold is a viral infection of the nose and throat. It is caused by one of many different viruses, but most colds are due to rhinovirus. Colds are extremely common – in fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that the average adult gets at least 2-3 colds per year.  The cold virus is contagious and spreads through infected droplets from coughing or sneezing.


Cold symptoms usually begin two to three days after exposure to the virus, and they can include:

  • runny nose
  • congestion or post nasal drip (this will cause a cough)
  • fatigue
  • headache
  • muscle aches
  • sore throat

Most colds are mild and do not require a doctor’s visit or any type of medical treatment. This is because they are viral infections that usually just require fluids and rest. However, colds can be a precursor to sinus infections, pneumonia, or bronchitis. Cold symptoms that last longer than 10 days or are severe may warrant a doctor’s visit to determine if another issue has developed.

What is an allergy?

An allergy occurs when your immune system mistakes something harmless, like certain foods or pollen, for a harmful organism. This causes your body to release histamine and other chemicals in order to protect itself. Allergies are also common, and they can be seasonal or occur year-round, depending on the allergen. They are not contagious, nor are they caused by a virus or bacterium.

The release of histamine causes a range of symptoms that can include:

woman inhaling allergens
  • congestion or post nasal drip
  • itchy nose/eyes/throat
  • sneezing (usually fits of sneezing)
  • difficulty breathing through the nose (nasal obstruction)
  • coughing (dry or wet)
  • fatigue and sleepiness
  • muscle aches/stiffness
  • headache, especially behind the eyes.

Allergies can be treated with over the counter medications to reduce symptoms. However, it is important to know what causes your symptoms so that you can also take steps to limit or avoid the source altogether. Many people with allergies work with an ear nose throat doctor (ENT) to determine their triggers and find the right treatment.

Since allergies are a chronic issue that does not go away like a cold, there are various other treatments used to alleviate symptoms. Nasal congestion, in particular, can be effectively treated by an ENT with treatments such as: septoplasty, nasal valve repair, and balloon sinuplasty, to name a few.

How do I tell the difference between a cold and an allergy?

It can be difficult to tell the difference between a cold and an allergy, especially since they share some common symptoms. If someone has both allergies AND a cold at once it is possible for them to experience symptoms of each simultaneously. For example: sore throat from the cold and congestion from allergies. Otherwise, there are some key differences that will help guide your guess.

The best way to tell if you have a cold or an allergy is to pay attention to your symptoms, specifically the ones that they don’t share. Both colds and allergies have symptoms that are specific to one or the other. For example, colds are more likely to cause fatigue, aches & pains, sore throat, stuffy nose, headaches, or fever, whereas allergies are more likely to cause itchy eyes, wheezing, or skin rashes.

The appearance and duration of your symptoms is another important factor to consider. Cold symptoms tend to come on slowly over a day or two and typically last about 7-10 days. Allergy symptoms, on the other hand, tend to come on suddenly and last until the trigger is removed or the allergy is treated. Some people have allergies year-round, while others experience seasonal allergy symptoms for 2-3 weeks at a time.

In Conclusion

Colds are caused by a virus, while allergies are caused by an allergen. Despite the fact that they have different causes, both colds and allergies have similar symptoms, which can make them hard to differentiate. Therefore, it is important to pay attention to your symptoms to determine whether you have a cold or allergy.  The best way to tell if you have a cold or an allergy is by looking at the appearance and duration of your symptoms and by what they don’t share. It may also be helpful to schedule an appointment with your local ENT if you don’t notice your symptoms improving.

Lee A. Kleiman a doctor at Anne Arundel ENT

Dr. Lee A. Kleiman is a double board certified ENT & plastic surgeon at Anne Arundel ENT in Annapolis, Maryland known for his superior clinical outcomes in all Surgical and Non-Surgical ENT, specializing in Sinus Care, Voice and Swallowing, Rhinoplasty and Revision Rhinoplasty, and Facelifts and Non-surgical Aesthetic. He also continues to attend conferences internationally and nationally to keep abreast of the latest treatments and technology.