How Do I Know If It's a Cold or If I Have Asthma and/or Allergies?

by Kathi MacNaughton Health Professional

Question: My child has had a runny nose, sneezing, wheezing, and coughing for a few weeks now. I thought it was just a winter cold, but now I'm wondering if it might be allergies and asthma?

Answer: Great question And the answer isn't always clear from the get go, especially at this time of year, when winter may still be hanging on (prime time for colds), but trees are blooming (and their pollen can trigger allergy and asthma symptoms). But there are ways to tell and it is important to know the difference.

Let's take a look at some of the symptoms:

  • Runny nose. Colds usually cause a runny nose that turns into a thicker, yellowish-green mucus, while allergies only produce a clear mucus.

  • Cough. Allergy and asthma coughs rarely bring up anything, while coughs with colds may, and again it could be that yellowish-green mucus. Also, an asthma cough often gets worse during the night while your child is sleeping.

  • Wheezing. A high pitched whistling sound heard during the exhaled and sometimes the inhaled breath, is called wheezing and is the hallmark symptom of asthma in children.

  • Symptoms don't go away after a week to 10 days. In colds, the virus eventually runs its course and symptoms get better. But when symptoms are related instead to allergies or asthma, they won't get better at least not for good. They might seem better on cooler or wetter days, but then will return when your child is once again exposed to allergic triggers.

  • Fever/muscle aches. Colds can produce those symptoms, while asthma never does.

Those are just a few of the differences with colds and asthma/allergies. If you're not still not sure which your child has, then by all means contact his or her doctor.

Colds often don't need any treatment, although you might use a cold medication with a decongestant and cough suppressant. However, allergies and asthma can and should be treated with an antihistamine and/or nasal steroid.

Kathi  MacNaughton
Meet Our Writer
Kathi MacNaughton

Kathi is an experienced consumer health education writer, with a prior career in nursing that spanned more than 30 years — much of it in the field of home health care. Over the past 15 years, she's been an avid contributor for a number of consumer health websites, specializing in asthma, allergy, and COPD. She writes not only as a healthcare professional, but also as a lifelong sufferer of severe allergies and mild asthma, and as a caregiver for her mother with COPD.