Is It a Cold or Allergies?

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.

According to the National Institutes of Health, if you have a cold, you are most contagious and should stay at home for the first 2 to 3 days, and you are usually not contagious by days 7 to 10. Colds usually last from 3 to 14 days. To prevent cold reoccurrence, wash your hands often, stay away from people who are having cold symptoms, and support your immune system.

Think It May Be Allergies?

The treatment of allergies focuses primarily on avoidance of the allergen, and on symptom management. To prevent allergies, talk with your health-care provider to try to determine your triggers, and take measures to avoid them. You may also want to ask about allergy medications, if your symptoms are constant or unmanageable. In contrast to the common cold, allergies are not contagious, so as long as your symptoms are manageable you don’t need to stay home.

In most cases, you don’t need to see a doctor if you are having symptoms of a cold or allergies, unless your symptoms become unmanageable, if breathing becomes difficult, if your symptoms get worse, or if you don’t start to get better within 7 to 10 days.