Cold Or Allergy?

The difference between cold and allergies

Suffering from a Cold or Allergies?

Sometimes it seems that, no matter what the time of year, either the common cold or allergies are waiting to attack.

Colds and allergies can share many of the same symptoms. But they are very different conditions with different causes—meaning each requires different treatment. So how can you tell which you’re suffering from?

If symptoms develop suddenly, and occur at about the same time every year, it’s probably an allergy acting up. Allergies are caused by your body mistaking harmless substances—mold, pet hair, dust, pollen—for germs, and attacking them.1 Allergies are the result of a chain reaction that starts in the immune system. Your immune system controls how your body defends itself. For example, if you have an allergy to pollen, your immune system sees the pollen as an invader or allergen and reacts by producing antibodies. The antibodies then travel to cells that release chemicals, causing an allergic reaction. This reaction can cause symptoms such as nasal passage swelling, a runny nose, coughing, and sneezing.1,2 The good news is that allergies are not contagious.

The common cold is caused by a virus, most commonly a rhinovirus,3 of which there are over 100 varieties. Cold viruses are with us year-round, regardless of climate or weather. Colds are spread from person to person by direct or indirect contact.3

Checklist of woes

Here’s a quick checklist to help you decide what’s causing your symptoms:4

  • Stuffy/runny nose, sneezing – usually with both cold and allergy
  • Cough, sore throat – usually cold; sometimes allergy
  • Fatigue – sometimes cold or allergy
  • General aches/pains – sometimes cold; never allergy
  • Fever – rarely cold; never allergy
  • Itchy eyes – rarely cold; usually allergy

The fact that colds and allergies share many of the same symptoms often makes it difficult even for doctors to figure out which one a patient has. The most telling difference between colds and allergies may be duration – a cold doesn’t last longer than 14 days.3 It is possible, however, to catch a ‘new’ cold – a different virus entirely – while still having symptoms from the previous cold.5

But what about treatment?

Cold treatment may include pain relievers and cold remedies, such as decongestants.3,6 Consult your doctor or pharmacist for advice.

Cold sufferers can benefit from humidified air, plenty of liquids6 and saline nasal drops or spray to thin secretions and promote clearer breathing. And yes, chicken soup really might help – the hot liquid and salt can help you fight the infection, as well as temporarily clearing nasal passages.6

Allergy treatment could include over-the-counter or prescription medications, such as antihistamines, nasal steroid sprays and decongestants.7 Therefore, it’s important to seek advice from a doctor or pharmacist. Avoiding exposure to allergens is the best way to go, but not always possible.

There are allergy tests available to determine exactly what the allergen trigger is for each person. If allergies are multiple and severe, a specialist such as a certified allergist, may be needed to sort them out with a series of tests.

So the next time you’re sniffling and sneezing, try to figure out just why your immune system is working so hard. That way, you can give it a little of the right kind of help.


  1. US Medline Plus. Allergies. Available at
  2. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Tips to remember: indoor allergens. Available at: Accessed August 2010.
  3. US National Institutes for Health. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Common Cold. Available at 
  4. Cold or Allergy—Which Is It? By James Stekelberg, M.D., Mayo Clinic.
  5. Cardiff University Common Cold Centre. Available at
  6. US Medline Plus. Common Cold. Available at Accessed August 2010.
  7. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Tips to remember: Asthma and Allergy Treatments. Available at, Accessed August 2010.