Allergies or Cold? How to Tell the Difference

Young woman sitting against a tree blowing her nose

Nobody likes catching a cold or dealing with uncomfortable allergies. More people reach for their SinuSonic during allergy season and cold & flu season than any other time of the year. This is especially true if you experience hay fever during cold and flu season. 

Can allergies make you feel like you have a cold?

Short answer, yes. Although there are distinct differences between colds and allergies, and should be treated differently.  So if you’re wondering whether you have allergies or a cold, we’re sharing distinct symptoms for each so you know how to tell the difference. 

Seasonal allergies and the common cold are two fundamentally different things with different causes. Yet, it’s easy to get their symptoms confused because of their similarities, including:

  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing and coughing
  • Sore throat
  • Watery eyes

If you’re finding it tricky to tell the difference between the two because you don't experience allergy symptoms very often, don’t worry. It's easy to tell which is which, once you know what distinct or unique symptoms to look for.

Got Allergies? How to Tell For Sure

Uncovering whether your symptoms are caused by allergies can be confusing especially when allergy season corresponds with cold season.

Unlike a cold, you can't "catch" seasonal allergies, or hay fever, because they’re not contagious. However, similarly to a cold, your seasonal allergy symptoms are your immune system's response to an allergen that you encounter in your day-to-day life. 

Hay fever is worse during the months between March and September because this is when pollen count is at it’s highest levels, but it can occur any time of the year. 

Seasonal allergies, however, may not be the only thing causing your symptoms. You could be affected year-round by outdoor allergies and non-seasonal indoor allergies.

Common Environmental Allergens (Seasonal or Not)

  • Pollen
  • Trees and shrubbery
  • Grasses
  • Pet dander
  • Dust or dust mites
  • Mold spores
  • Cleaning products
  • Perfumes and skincare items
  • Environmental allergens— such as smoke

Multiple Allergens May Be the Culprit

If you start getting stuffy, congested, or experience a runny nose or any other uncomfortable common symptom, and you’re not sure if you’re dealing with a cold or allergies it’s time to do some investigative work. 

Ask yourself whether you've been exposed to any allergens. Remember, these can be indoor allergens as well. 

Even when hay fever is most common, seasonal allergens may not be the only trigger. 

You may have allergies to dust and pet dander. Perhaps you’ve starting using a new cleaning product, or are wearing a new perfume. If you have any sensitivities to these things, and you combine them with seasonal allergens, you can reach “system threshold”. 

System threshhold is when you’re exposed to multiple substances you’re allergic to, and they add up!  

How Do I Find Out What I’m Allergic To?

If you have an allergic reaction and your symptoms are extreme, skin allergy testing is a common allergy test used to help people discover what they’re allergic to. 

But if you’re just wondering if your symptoms are caused by the common cold or allergies, then one of the fastest and easiest ways to start your investigation is to visit You’re able to enter your city or zip code, review your allergy forecast (is it low, medium or high) and see what allergens are in the air where you live. 

Remember, even if outdoor allergens are low, if there are multiple offenders and you’re allergic to all of them, plus you react to indoor allergens, it could be enough to push your immune response into overdrive. 

Allergy vs. Cold Symptoms

Here are some signs that you're dealing with allergies, rather than a cold:

  • You have watery or itchy eyes— itchy, watery eyes seldom accompany the common cold.
  • You have an itchy nose or a stuffy nose and your mucus is clear or watery. When you have a cold, your mucus can become discolored or thick.
  • Your symptoms last longer than a week. A cold normally clears up within a week, whereas your allergies can last for as long as you're exposed to allergens. 
  • You develop a rash or hives as a result of your body's immune response to allergens. With a cold, you won’t.
  • You don’t have a cough. It’s rare to cough when you have allergies. Unlike a cold, when you’ll most likely have a cough. 
  • With allergies you won’t have aches and pains throughout your body as you might with a cold. 

If you've only recently started experiencing seasonal allergies, talk to your doctor or an allergy specialist. They can help you find what triggers your allergies and help you find the best way to fight them.

How to Treat Allergy Symptoms

Whether you use prescription or over-the-counter drugs, or even more holistic solutions, there are plenty of ways to relieve your allergy symptoms. Here are a few of these ways:

  • Allergy medication including antihistamines or decongestants that are available either over-the-counter or by prescription.
  • Eye drops for watery or itchy eyes.
  • Allergy shots.
  • Nasal spray.
  • Natural, drug-free methods to relieve nasal congestion- including saline solution, a neti pot, or SinuSonic.

You can’t control what’s in the air, but you can reduce your exposure to some allergens like dust mites and pet dander. This can help keep you below your threshold for allergy symptom relief. Here are our tips to help you allergy-proof your home

Remember, allergens aren’t the only cause of allergy symptoms like sneezing, itchy eyes and a runny or stuffy nose. Non-allergic triggers like cigarette smoke can trigger your symptoms and those can’t be treated with antihistamines for relief.

One Important Health Note About Allergies

It’s important to note that everyone’s response to allergens are different. Some people may experience a severe reaction called anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis is a potentially life-threatening response that can occur even with small amounts of exposure to allergens, that cause your body to react strongly. If your allergic reactions come on quickly and you experience difficulty breathing seek urgent care and medical attention immediately.

How to Tell if You Have a Cold

The common cold is caused by a virus rather than a specific allergy trigger. There are a few common cold symptoms that you definitely won't experience with allergies. 

You may be experiencing the common cold if:

  • You have a stuffy or runny nose, and your mucus thickens or becomes yellow or green.
  • Your symptoms change while you have a cold— which is normal. For example, you may experience body aches and a fever for a few days, and a sore throat after that.
  • You experience body aches or headaches.
  • You develop a fever.
  • You have a cough.
  • Your symptoms go away after a few days to a week. This is generally how long it takes for your body to eliminate the virus.

Spring Is The Season Of The Surprising Cold

Generally, we think of colds as being predominant in the fall and winter. But springtime is prime time for a cold— and allergies. Spring brings dramatic changes in the weather and often poor air quality which can make conditions perfect to catch a cold. 

Springtime colds (sometimes a summer cold) are often mistaken for allergies in the beginning. It is important to note the difference so you can begin appropriate treatment.

How to Treat a Cold

The best treatment for the common cold is to rest and drink plenty of fluids. However, there are other treatments that can help relieve your symptoms as your body fights the cold virus. These may include:

  • Over-the-counter medications— such as decongestants, cough syrup, or pain relievers. 
  • Using SinuSonic, saline solution, or a neti pot to relieve sinus congestion and clear your nasal passage.
  • Gargling with salt water to soothe a sore throat.
  • Get plenty of sleep.

Important note: Decongestants are stimulants and can make it difficult to fall asleep. If you are stuffed up and congested, using non-drug decongestants close to bedtime can help you get the sleep your body needs.

Related: How to Sleep with a Stuffy Nose (5 Drug-Free Remedies)

Allergies or Cold? Or COVID?

While COVID-19 has become an unfortunate part of our everyday lives, it's still important to be mindful of the disease and its symptoms.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 symptoms can also share some common cold or allergy symptoms. So how can you tell if your symptoms are because of a cold, allergies, or the Coronavirus? The important thing to remember here is that some of COVID-19's most distinctive symptoms are not something you can get with the sniffles or hay fever. Let's take a look at those.

COVID-19 Symptoms

The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, cough, and fatigue. These are similar to what you see with the common cold— which is where the worry and confusion come from. However, here are symptoms you'll likely experience if you contract the coronavirus— but not with the common cold or allergies.

  • Shortness of breath
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

If you think that you're experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, it's important to get safely tested either at home, or an approved testing facility and get diagnosed as soon as possible. COVID-19 can still be deadly— even for normally healthy people— so prompt treatment is vital for a speedy recovery.

Your Symptoms Are Nothing to Sneeze At!

Understanding your symptoms is key to knowing whether or not you're sick or just experiencing normal allergies. While either option can be annoying or unpleasant, it's vital to know whether or not you're just experiencing the same seasonal hay fever or something more serious.

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