Common Cold or Allergies? What You Need to Know

July 24, 2018

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on 8/24/17 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehension.


Coughing and sneezing are no fun.

You feel like you want to crawl into bed, pull the covers over your head, and stay put until it passes.

Not to mention the fact that you’ll get a lot of sideways glances if you go to work runny, stuffy, or hacking.

Because allergies and colds cause many of the same symptoms, it can be hard to determine which one is plaguing you.

In order to get the right treatment, possibly a prescription medication, you need to know what you’re dealing with.

First, we’re going to look at some ways to tell the difference between common cold and allergies.

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When the symptoms started

A cold comes from a virus.

The symptoms will show up a few days after you come into contact with it.

Allergies can show up almost immediately after exposure to a trigger, such as pollen or pet dander.

If you start to feel sick, think about your environment and your recent encounters.

Remember you were recently around someone who had an upper respiratory infection? It’s a safe bet that you may have contracted a virus.

On the other hand, if your symptoms come on after you just finished mowing the lawn, allergies are probably to blame.

The symptoms you have

Some of the symptoms of allergies and colds overlap, such as:

  • Runny nose.
  • Stuffy nose.
  • Sneezing.
  • Cough.
  • Fatigue.

Symptoms unique to allergies include:

  • Itchy eyes.
  • Dark under-eye circles.
  • Post-nasal drip.

A cold virus usually causes:

  • Sore throat.
  • Cloudy or discolored nasal discharge.
  • Fever.
  • Achiness.

Evaluating your symptoms can give you a good idea of what you’re suffering from.

How long it lasts

There is some overlap in the time you can be affected by either of these ailments.

Generally, a cold can last anywhere from 3 to 14 days. It’s important to remember that a cold shouldn’t last more than 2 weeks, and if your symptoms persist, you should be evaluated by your doctor.

Allergy symptoms can last from days to months, depending on how long you’ve been exposed to the allergen.

Now that you know the difference between common cold and allergies, let’s talk about the treatments available for colds and allergies.

Taking care of a cold

There’s no medicine that can cure the cold virus, but there are ways to alleviate your symptoms, like using:

  • Cough syrups.
  • Decongestant sprays.
  • Pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
  • Cold relief medicines that treat multiple symptoms.

Be sure to consult your doctor about any kind of medication you intend on taking.

You should also get plenty of extra rest and up your fluid intake with water or tea.

Soup or broth are also good choices for the days your cold is making you feel crummy.

There are some non-medicinal home remedies that may help to ease your discomfort, such as:

  • Saline nasal sprays.
  • Using a humidifier.
  • Gargling with salt water.

Treating allergies

You have some options when it comes to treating allergies with medication.

Most allergy medicine works by blocking your body’s histamine reactions that result from contact with an allergen.

A common side-effect of these medications is drowsiness. You can combat this by taking the medicine at night or by asking your doctor for a type that’s a “daytime” formula.

An ounce of prevention

What can you do to lessen the likelihood that you’ll get a cold or experience allergies?

Cold viruses are spread very easily from person to person, and it’s nearly impossible to be completely protected unless you put yourself in one of those plastic bubbles.

Since that’s probably not too compatible with your lifestyle, here are some things to try instead.

  • Wash your hands and use hand sanitizer frequently. Like, all the time. Especially after being in a public place where you’re touching things a lot of other people have touched.
  • Keep your hands away from your eyes, nose and mouth. These are the areas most susceptible to germ invasions.

It’s a little bit trickier with allergies.

The best thing you can do is limit your exposure to the allergens that bother you. Unfortunately, that may mean staying indoors when you’d rather be outside but pollen counts are high.

There are over-the-counter medications that can alleviate your symptoms without drowsiness. They usually need to be taken on a daily basis in order to get the maximum benefits.

Of course, you need to talk to your doctor before starting an allergy medicine.

Colds, allergies and you

Knowing the difference between a cold or allergies is important  – because your treatment depends on it!

You want to care for yourself in the most effective way possible.

It won’t do you much good to treat allergies as a cold virus or vice versa.

Understanding the ways you can lower your chances of exposure to both colds and allergens may save you some uncomfortable days in the future.

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What’s your go-to treatment when you feel a cold coming on?