A runny, yet stuffy nose. An annoying cough. A scratchy throat. Something’s settling in, but at this time of year, is it a cold or seasonal allergies?
Since both the common cold virus and allergies can linger year-round, flare up more regularly during certain times of the year and share similar symptoms, it can be hard to know exactly what’s happening when the sniffling starts.
Some estimates show that people in the U.S. suffer from 1 billion colds each year. And when it comes to allergies, as many as 30% of adults and 40% of children have them.
So, how can you tell the difference between cold symptoms and seasonal allergy symptoms? Here’s what you need to know.
Allergies vs. colds: A side-by-side look at the common signs
While seasonal allergies and colds share some of the same symptoms, how your symptoms feel and how common they are can be unique. Here’s a side-by-side chart comparing allergy and cold symptoms that gives an overview of the similarities and differences.
|Fever||Never||Temperature of at least 100°F|
|Runny or stuffy nose||Common||Common|
|Itchy, watery eyes||Common||Rare|
|Circles under eyes||Typical||Never|
|Muscle pain or body aches||Rare||Common|
How you can tell the difference between cold and seasonal allergy symptoms
With both allergies and colds, it’s typical to have congestion or a runny nose, and to sneeze often. You may also feel tired and drowsy. But there are several other symptoms that don’t often overlap between allergies and a cold. Here are some of the telltale differences between cold symptoms and allergy symptoms.
1. Allergies follow a pattern and symptoms tend to stick around longer
If you have allergies, your symptoms will flare up at certain times throughout the year when the allergens you’re sensitive to are present. For example, if you have a tree pollen allergy, your symptoms will first appear in the early spring.
This also means that your symptoms can last for several weeks until that particular allergy season has ended. To put that into perspective, colds usually only last about a week.
Cold viruses are present all year, so you can catch one at any time. However, the winter cold season is when getting sick is more likely.
2. Allergies do not cause fevers
People often wonder if allergies can cause a fever. The answer is no. Allergies cannot cause a fever, though you could have an allergy flare-up at the same time you’re experiencing a fever from an infection. For example, since allergies tend to cause stuffy noses, they’re also considered risk factors for sinus infections. Sinus infections happen when mucus gets trapped in the sinuses, allowing bacteria or viruses to grow.
With a cold, your temperature can run warmer, but typically it will be less than 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
3. Allergies usually do not cause wet coughs
While coughing is often a symptom of both allergies and colds, the type of cough for each is different. A cold cough is wet and hacking, and typically produces mucus or phlegm that gets progressively thicker, often taking on a green or yellow tinge.
Allergies can cause a cough that feels like you have a tickle in your throat. That’s because allergens often irritate the lining of your nose, which triggers your nasal passages to create a watery mucus. This can drip out of your nose and down the back of your throat, creating that tickling sensation. This is referred to as post-nasal drip.
4. Itchy eyes, ears, nose and throat usually signals allergies
Allergies have a significant itch factor. If you’re experiencing itchy eyes, ears, nose or throat, it’s almost certainly allergies. That’s because the same allergens that can cause other symptoms, like sneezing and coughing, can also affect the lining of your eyes. This can lead to dry eyes, triggering redness, itching and burning.
5. Allergies rarely cause sore throats or body aches
The only ache you may feel with allergies is a headache from all that congestion. Allergies can cause a sore throat if there’s enough irritation from post-nasal drip and coughing, but if you’re experiencing a sore throat or mild body aches, they’re more likely a sign of a bad cold.
Can allergies cause chills? No. If you have chills, it’s more likely you have a cold, the flu or another infection (depending on your other symptoms).
How do COVID-19 symptoms differ from a cold or allergies?
The common cold, seasonal allergies and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and COVID-19 all affect your respiratory system, which means they have several symptoms in common. Some of those shared symptoms include:
- Runny or stuffy nose (congestion)
- Scratchy or sore throat
Coughs caused by allergies, RSV or COVID-19 are usually dry, but COVID-19 may cause persistent coughing that can leave you short of breath.
For a closer look at how to tell the difference between other types of conditions, check out these other helpful resources:
- COVID-19 symptoms vs. flu symptoms
- Cold symptoms vs. flu symptoms
- Flu symptoms in kids
- Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
- Sinus infections vs. colds
- Allergy vs. asthma in children
- Allergy symptoms vs. COVID-19 symptoms
What should I do if I think I have a cold or seasonal allergies?
When you start feeling icky, some simple home remedies can provide temporary relief. For starters, try to get more rest. Both allergies and colds can cause tiredness, so listen to your body and take it easy.
Also, take advantage of saltwater to soothe irritated nasal passages and scratchy or sore throats.
For your nose, use a neti pot. A neti pot can be picked up at any local drugstore or online, and typically comes with packets to mix with warm, distilled water to create a saltwater solution to pour through your nasal passages.
For your throat, simply mix a quarter or half teaspoon of table salt into an 8-ounce glass of warm water. Take a sip and gargle for a few seconds like you would with mouthwash. Then spit and repeat until the solution is gone. You can do this a couple times a day.
Use over-the-counter medications to help relieve and manage symptoms
If you think you have a cold, and you’re experiencing a slight fever, headache or muscle aches, take acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) – as long as you’re not allergic to these medications. These medicines can help lower your temperature and provide some pain relief.
If your child is the one with cold symptoms, make sure you’ve spoken to their doctor about which medications are safe to administer, and follow pain reliever dosing instructions very carefully.
Warning: Do not give aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) to children or teenagers who have the flu, as it comes with a small risk of causing the potentially fatal Reye’s Syndrome.
Seasonal allergy medications
How do you find relief from seasonal allergies? Taking an oral antihistamine can be your first step.
Benadryl is a popular option, but it may cause drowsiness. (And for kids under age 6, it can sometimes cause hyperactivity.) But newer medications like Claritin, Allegra, Xyzal and Zyrtec – and lower-cost generic versions – have reduced this side effect.
There are also antihistamines available in the form of eye drops to help those itchy, watery eyes. One option is called Zatidor (ketotifen).
Can antihistamines work for cold symptoms, too? Technically, yes. Antihistamines help relieve congestion symptoms such as runny or stuffy nose, sneezing and itchy, teary eyes. So if you’re experiencing any of those symptoms during a cold, an antihistamine can help.
Medications to help with colds and allergies
Whether you’re experiencing cold or allergy symptoms, there are a couple treatments you can find at your local drug store:
- Nasal spray (like Flonase and Nasacort) to bring down inflammation in your nose and sinuses.
- Decongestants (like Sudafed) can relieve congestion when allergies are at their worst. But they can have other side effects, so they should only be used short-term when allergies are severe. Do not take if you have certain medical conditions such as high blood pressure or a heart condition.
Talk with a doctor or clinician to create a personalized treatment plan
If you aren’t sure if it’s a cold or allergies, or if your symptoms are severe or long-lasting, it’s best to connect with a care provider to get an official diagnosis and treatment plan.
If your allergy symptoms are left untreated, you could become more prone to getting sinus infections or other upper respiratory infections, or they may lead to poor asthma control.
Also, a common cold can turn severe. So if your cold has had you laid up longer than a day or two, get in touch with your doctor. You have a couple options:
- Make a primary care appointment – Meet with your primary care doctor or a clinician who can diagnose and treat hundreds of conditions. They can also connect you with an allergist or an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose and throat doctor) if needed.
- Start a Virtuwell visit – Don’t want to wait for an appointment? Virtuwell offers care for more than 60 common conditions 24/7. Just answer a few questions, and you’ll get your diagnosis and treatment plan from a board-certified nurse practitioner for $59 or less, depending on your insurance.