Do You Have Seasonal Allergies or the Common Cold?

Health Professional

When your nose gets stuffy, the sniffles set in, that tickle in your throat triggers that irritating cough, you get hit by a debilitating wave of malaise -- how do you know if it's just more of the same seasonal allergy symptoms you are used to, or if it might be the start of a cold?

I can tell you that even though I've been dealing with allergy symptoms at the same time of the year for more than 50 years, I'm still not always sure at first if what I'm feeling is "the usual," or if these are the symptoms of a viral infection. Many of the symptoms are the same:

  • Sneezing
  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Post-nasal drip
  • Headache
  • Dry cough

But, there are some clues that can help you determine if you are experiencing cold symptoms, rather than allergy symptoms.

Signs that indicate allergies

If you have itching in your nose, eyes oral cavity or throat, chances are you have allergies. Itching rarely occurs with colds or other respiratory infections. Or, if you notice a flare in your asthma or eczema symptoms, you're probably dealing with allergies, too. Different types of allergies tend to flare together when you are exposed to one or more of your triggers.

Signs that suggest you may have an infection

On the other hand, things like sore throat, achiness and fever are more likely to occur with a cold. Those are signs that something is going on throughout your body, rather than just in your airways. They are signs that your body is fighting an infection.

Also, if the symptoms stick around for a few days, getting progressively worse before they get better, it's probably an infection. Allergy symptoms generally flare in response to a trigger, but then gradually subside if you are able to get away from the trigger. On the other hand, colds usually run their course within three to five days, while allergy symptoms may continue (at least off and on) year-round, depending on what you are allergic to.

If your symptoms don't change markedly when you take your allergy medicine, you may have a respiratory infection. Antihistamines won't help the symptoms of the common cold, unless they also contain a decongestant (such as Claritin-D, Allegra-D, etc.).

If you're still not sure

Depending on how well you know your body and how familiar you are with your allergic responses, it may be hard to figure out if you're dealing with allergy symptoms or a common cold.

With a cold, there is not a lot that can be done, other than comfort measures to reduce symptoms. Getting lots of rest will also help. Drinking plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration also is important. Rest and fluids can greatly help with allergy flares.

When in doubt, though, consult a healthcare professional. This expert can examine you, take a history of your symptoms and diagnose what you are actually going through.  Then, he or she can advise you on the best course of action.