Is It Allergies or a Cold?

I have a stuffy nose and a cough, but is it allergies or a cold?

Chances are, that thought has crossed your mind. After all, the symptoms of both are similar. Unfortunately, the ways to relief are not, which means it’s important to know the differences between the two and treat each one accordingly.

To start, let’s define allergies and a cold.

Allergies occur when your immune system reacts negatively to an allergy trigger or allergen. Your immune system then releases multiple chemicals called histamine, which cause the allergy symptoms. 

If you experience allergies, you’re not alone! More than 50 million U.S. adults have allergies, with seasonal allergens like tree, grass, and weed pollen being the most common triggers. other potential triggers include:

  • dust mites
  • animal dander or saliva from a cat or dog
  • mold
  • food, like peanuts, tree nuts, milk, and eggs

Meanwhile, a common cold is caused by various types of viruses that lead to different symptoms and levels of severity. Although colds seem to be more common in the winter months, you can get one any time of year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that the average healthy adult gets two or three colds per year

Allergies and colds have many symptoms in common, including:

  • a runny nose
  • nasal congestion
  • sneezing
  • coughing
  • a sore throat
  • watery eyes

It may be most important, though, to look at the symptoms they don’t share. Allergies are more likely to cause itchy eyes, wheezing, and skin rashes, while cold symptoms are more likely to include fatigue, head or body aches, and pains. Severe colds may even cause fevers. 

Another way to differentiate between allergies and a cold is the duration of your symptoms.

Typically, recovery from a cold is fairly quick with the average cold lasting 7 to 10 days. Some medications can help lessen your symptoms (like pain relievers and cough syrups), but rest and hydration are the two most important factors for recovery. If your symptoms last longer, it’s important to reach out to your primary care physician for a check-up, as the virus can lead to a more serious infection, like a sinus infection, pneumonia, or bronchitis. 

When it comes to allergies, you have to treat them or remove the trigger in order to find relief. Seasonal allergens, which are most likely to show up in the spring when things are in bloom, usually cause symptoms for two to three weeks a time. One telltale sign of allergies is the “allergic salute.” Thanks to an itchy nose, individuals (especially children) will often rub their nose with an upward hand motion that resembles a salute. 

While you usually don’t need to see a doctor for a cold, you may need to visit a primary care physician, an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor, or an allergist for an allergy diagnosis and treatment plan. Note that a skin test or blood test may be necessary depending on your age and health history. 


Contact Dr. Asha Tota-Maharaj, MD at Platinum Primary Care with all your healthcare needs. Come visit us at 2071 Dundee Drive in Winter Park.