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Health & Wellness Articles  ›  Healthy Lifestyles

Is It a Cold or Allergies?

Find Out What Ails You by Assessing Your Symptoms

-- By Liza Barnes, Registered Nurse and Health Educator
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You’re sneezing. Your nose is running. Your eyes are watering. And you’re feeling run down. Is it a cold, allergies, or something else?

When you've got the sniffles, it’s important to be able to distinguish between the causes of your symptoms so that you know which treatment to seek, whether or not you’re contagious, whether you should see your health-care provider, and how to prevent your symptoms from coming back.

Colds and allergies, quite obviously, have very different causes. Although the symptoms of both ailments occur when your body’s immune system reacts to a foreign body, in the case of colds, this foreign body is a virus, while for allergies, the culprit is generally something benign, such as dust mite particles or pollen. When exposed to allergens, your body recognizes the foreign substance as harmful, so it creates an immune response as if you were sick. So how do you tell the difference?

This chart, from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, shows the differences and similarities between symptoms of colds and allergies. Note that the chart describes common symptoms of allergies to airborne particles only, like dust, pollen, mold spores, and pet dander, not necessarily to food or drug allergies, which can present very different symptoms. Note that the three most distinguishing factors to pay attention to are body aches, itchy eyes and a sore throat.

Symptom Occurrence in Colds Occurrence in Seasonal Allergies
Cough Common Sometimes
Body aches Slight Never
Fatigue, weakness Sometimes Sometimes
Itchy eyes Rare or never Common
Sneezing Common Common
Sore throat Common Sometimes
Runny nose Common Common
Stuffy nose Common Common
Fever Rare Never

So You Have a Cold?
The treatment of a cold focuses primarily on symptom management while the immune system fights off the infection. Common measures include over-the-counter pain relievers such as Tylenol, throat sprays, lozenges, and chicken soup. Support your immune system by eating healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, getting ample rest, drinking enough fluids, and managing your stress levels. There is no cure for the common cold, and antibiotics won’t help because they don’t kill viruses.
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About The Author

Liza Barnes Liza Barnes
Liza has two bachelor's degrees: one in health promotion and education and a second in nursing. A registered nurse and mother, regular exercise and cooking are top priorities for her. See all of Liza's articles.

Member Comments

  • Good article, its not exactly right though. - 10/20/2012 12:44:20 PM
  • now I know its cold I have. - 4/13/2012 11:13:39 PM
  • My sinuses are a little more complicated. I have some allergies, I get colds, I sometimes get the flu in spite of the shots, and my sinuses react to changes in the weather. So when I get sinus issues, I get to figure out if it's the weather, my allergies, a cold, or the flu. If I guess wrong and let it drag on too long, it will either turn into a sinus infection or else settle in my throat and take forever to get rid of.

    It's actually not that uncommon for allergies to cause a sore throat if there are sniffles involved. Some of them run down the throat and cause irritation. - 12/15/2011 2:27:46 PM
  • Thanks for the information. I have had lingering symptoms and was wondering if it was allergies. The fever and raw throat at the outset answered my question. Thanks! - 12/15/2011 12:45:54 PM
  • I would like to see one that was titled "is it a cold or the flu?" - 11/8/2011 9:32:20 PM
  • I've been feeling miserable for weeks now. My mucus is clear. Never thought of allergies...Now to find out what I am allergic to. - 3/30/2011 11:12:46 AM
  • In my case, the ENT said that if there's color (i.e. yellow or green) in the mucus during the day there's some sort of sinus infection involved. I have nearly year-long allergies, and would often get sinus infections from them. For me, the trick was to stop taking the decongestants my family doctor had recommended. Decongestants dry the mucus membranes and were causing my narrower-tha-usua
    l sinus passages to plug up. - 3/30/2011 7:12:17 AM
  • STORMY724
    My doctor told me if it starts with a runny nose it's an allergy & when it starts with a sore throat it is a cold. In my case I've found that to be true, but maybe it isn't always for everyone. - 3/30/2011 6:09:58 AM
  • JAMGIRL8
    Carolj35-usually they say that, but I have severe allergies and often the mucous can run yellow and I have had fever with allergies, but then again, I can be a bit of an odd duck. - 3/14/2011 12:12:16 PM
  • And isn't it true that the mucous from nose is yellow with a cold and clear with allergies? Just last week I thought I was catching cold, but it was allergies, and yes, I had a slight sore throat. Lots of hot water, lemon and honey helped. - 1/16/2011 8:17:40 PM
  • KADEJAH
    I've always wondered what the difference was---Now i know, thanks - 10/15/2010 6:56:05 PM