Is It an Allergy or a Cold?

Seasonal allergies and colds have similar symptoms but some important differences. The following information from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases can help you determine if you're suffering from allergies or a cold.

Hay fever

Symptoms are more common in the spring, summer, and early fall:

  • Runny or stuffy nose; mucus is generally clear and watery

  • Bouts of sneezing, often brought on by exposure to offending agent

  • Wheezing, most frequently seen in individuals with asthma; wheezing is unusual in people without asthma

  • Watery eyes, with whites of eyes possibly reddened or bloodshot

  • Fluid-filled and puffy areas around the eyes

  • In young children, "allergic shiners," a darkened appearance around the eyes cause by congestion of blood in the blood vessels

  • In young children, a frequent "allergic salute," or the habit of wiping the nose upward with the palm of the hand; this can lead to an "allergic crease," a prominent horizontal crease across the nose at the end of cartilage that is produced by repeated "allergic salutes"

Development of symptoms: Symptoms appear soon after you're exposed to an allergen. Seasonal pollen allergies appear at about the same time every year.

Duration of symptoms: Symptoms last as long as you're exposed to the allergen. Weeks or months of symptoms are not unusual with seasonal pollen allergies.

Colds

Colds and their symptoms are more common in the fall and winter, but can occur year-round. Possible symptoms include:

  • Nasal symptoms similar to those of hay fever

  • Increased mucus production in the nose

  • Lack of energy

  • Burning in the nose or sore throat may be present

  • Muscle aches and pains

  • Low grade fever in some cases

  • Wheezing, but only in people with asthma

Development of symptoms: It generally takes a day or two for full symptoms to develop.

Duration of symptoms: A cold should clear up within a week or so. Symptoms lasting longer than a week or worsening symptoms may suggest a secondary infection.

Online Medical Reviewer: Foster, Sara, RN, MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: newMentor board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Last Review Date: 7/26/2013
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