Could my cold symptoms actually be allergies? This is a great question because the common cold and allergies share similar symptoms. Yet, these two conditions require different treatment, thus it is important to know which one is affecting you. Let’s review in this article the similarities and differences between a cold and an allergy.
Cold vs allergies. How to tell the difference
- Different causes. Cold is a viral infection, and hundreds of viruses are responsible for the common cold. As an infection, the common cold is also contagious, being spread from one person to another when the infected person coughs, sneezes or shakes your hand. The immune system responds to the virus causing symptoms like cough and runny nose. In case of an allergy, the immune system responds to an allergen, which can be pollen, dust, dust mites or a food like peanut or milk. Normally these substances are harmless, but they are perceived as dangerous when a person is sensitive to them. Allergies are not contagious.
- The duration of the symptoms. This offers a big clue whether it is a cold or an allergy. A common cold starts in a couple of days after being exposed to the virus, and lasts about 7-10 days in most cases. Afterwards, the vast majority of people recover completely and the symptoms are gone. Common cold viruses circulate all year around, but are more likely to cause infections during the cold seasons. In case of an allergy, the trigger is a specific allergen, symptoms occur right away. They can last a few hours to days and disappear. In case of an environmental allergy like pollen, the symptoms can last for weeks or months until the person is no longer exposed to the allergen. Seasonal allergies are more common in the spring, summer and fall, when the weather is warmer. However, some allergies like those to dust or pet dander are experienced all year around, as the person is exposed to them in the home. The bottom line is this: if the symptoms have a very short duration or last more than two weeks, it is more likely an allergy.
- The symptoms. Runny or stuffy nose are common symptoms of both colds and allergies. Cough and sore throat are common symptoms of a cold, and occur in some, but not all cases of allergies. Headaches, body aches and pains are symptoms of a cold, but rarely experienced by those with allergies.
- Fever is rarely associated with a common cold but is unlikely seen in allergies.On the other hand, itchy watery eyes are highly suggestive of allergies and rarely experienced during a cold. Sneezing and wheezing are associated with both allergies and colds, especially in children. Both conditions can cause fatigue,
It is also worth looking at the severity of symptoms. A common cold will typically cause mild to moderate symptoms unless a bacterial infection or other complications develops. Allergy symptoms vary from very mild to moderate to severe- including life-threatening anaphylactic reactions.
- Associated conditions. Allergies often run in families, and are associated with eczema and asthma. These risk factors are linked with allergies, and not with a cold. The common cold is a viral condition that can affect anyone- although those with weakened immune systems are more likely to experience more severe symptoms.
In case of an allergy, the main recommendation is to avoid the allergen as much as possible. Antihistamines are the most commonly prescribed allergy drugs, followed by decongestants, steroid drugs, and mast stabilizers. Epinephrine shots are required in severe cases-anaphylaxis. In case of a common cold, the main advice is to rest, stay hydrated and drink hot tea if the symptoms are mild. Saline solutions can also help relieve congestion. Pain relievers such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen can be used. Adults can use decongestants, but only short-term. Over-the-counter cough and cold medicines (which include decongestants and antihistamines) do not have antiviral effects, and their efficacy to manage symptoms is questionable, according to some research.
Consult a pediatrician before using any over-the-counter products in young children.
While a doctor can help you differentiate between a common cold or allergy, you can simply ask yourself a few questions. Right down in a journal.
How quickly did the symptoms develop? If they develop right away, it may be an allergy. If they develop gradually, it is likely a cold.
How long did the symptoms last? The symptoms of a cold taper off after a week, while allergies can cause symptoms for a very short period of time or more than 2 weeks.
Do the symptoms occur at a certain time each and every year? This is highly suggestive for seasonal allergies. Common colds are typically seen during the cold seasons, but not exactly at the same time.
Do you experience itchy watery eyes or eczema? This is more likely an allergy.