Cold or Allergies - How to Tell the Difference

Most people are confused on how to tell the difference between a cold and allergies. This can lead to unnecessary trips to the doctor and prescription drugs that are not needed. The confusion arises due to the fact that both colds and allergies have many overlapping symptoms, making it difficult to distinguish between the two, even for professionals. Here are several ways to ensure that you correctly identify a cold vs allergies.

What causes a Cold?

A cold is caused by a virus. A virus is a microscopic organism that begins multiplying once it has successfully invaded its host (that would be you.)

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are many different viruses that actually cause colds, but the most common one is the Rhinovirus. Viruses are transmitted from person-to-person and spread through the air, as when someone talks, laughs, or sneezes. They are also spread through touch, as in a handshake, or using a phone right after an infected person.

Symptoms of a Cold

As mentioned, these share much in common with allergies. However, there are a few indicators that will tell you for sure that you have a cold and not allergies.

  • The color of your mucus—if your nasal discharge is yellow or green, that is a sure sign of a viral infection rather than an allergy
  • Low-grade fever and body aches– A fever and aching is indicative of a virus; allergies do not cause fevers.
  • Duration of 7-10 Days

Also, just to put to rest a very stubborn myth: Viruses are not specific to the time of the year. The Rhinovirus and its related strains are present year-round. Despite its common name, you do not catch a cold only when the weather is chilly. Also, a virus cannot be cured with antibiotics, so the only thing to do for a cold is to wait it out.

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What Causes Allergies?

An allergy is an abnormal response to a normal substance. Allergens can vary from person-to-person, but most are plant-related (pollen, ragweed, mold) and are also seasonal. The allergic reaction that mimics a cold is your body’s histamine response gone haywire (hence the abnormal response.)

Symptoms of Allergies

Although many of these are shared with a cold, there are a few that are not, and these are the ones to pay attention to.

  • Duration – Where a cold will only last 7-10 days, an allergy will stick around for months, possibly through an entire season
  • Onset – While a cold can be felt coming on a day or two in advance, an allergic reaction occurs immediately upon exposure. It’s instantaneous.
  • Occurring at the same time of year – This is a very good indicator of a seasonal allergy


Unlike a cold, allergies can be treated and their symptoms managed.  A prescription nasal spray like DYMISTA can provide some allergy relief for those suffering from the seasonal sniffles. Additionally, staying indoors as much as possible and exercising at night, when pollen counts are down, can help sufferers avoid allergens.

Helpful Tips

In either case, whether cold or allergy, there are a few things that you should do to remain healthy. One is to stay hydrated. The nasal drip depletes your body of water. Hydration becomes doubly important if taking an antihistamine. Also, continuing to eat healthy is vital, and while the jury is still out on chicken soup, if you feel that it helps, by all means use it!