June 15, 2024

What’s the Difference Between a Cold and Allergies?

Returning home after a tiring workday, you’re met with a relentless headache and nasal congestion. Additionally, you feel a tad worn out. Is this the onset of a cold, or could it be just periodic allergies?

Lurlyn Pero, MD, an internal medicine expert at Banner Health in Arizona, acknowledges, “This confusion arises frequently since their mild symptoms often overlap. Nonetheless, their treatments differ significantly.”

Colds versus allergies

Colds primarily target the upper respiratory system, including areas like the sinuses, nasal passages, throat, and larynx. They originate from various viruses and can be transmitted through direct contact with an infected individual, touching surfaces they’ve contacted, or inhaling airborne particles when someone with a cold coughs or sneezes.

On the other hand, seasonal allergies, commonly referred to as hay fever or allergic rhinitis, emerge when your immune system overreacts to external substances like pollen, dust mites, insects, grasses, pet fur, mold, and others. It’s noteworthy that allergies often have genetic ties.

Both colds and allergies can present with symptoms like sneezing, nasal congestion, or a runny nose. Feeling slightly fatigued or drained is also common in both cases. However, several distinct symptoms set them apart.

So, if you’re pondering whether to reach for an allergy medication or cozy up with a blanket to nurse your cold, understanding the distinguishing symptoms of each can guide your next steps.

Colds typically produce productive (phlegmy) coughs

While both allergies and colds can cause coughing, the type of cough differs. Coughs resulting from colds are usually moist and have a hacking nature. As a cold progresses, the mucus may become denser, whereas allergies rarely result in a moist cough.

Dr. Pero explains, “Allergens primarily irritate the mucous membranes in the nose and nasal passages, producing a thin, watery mucus. This mucus then drips down the throat, causing that familiar tickling sensation which, in turn, induces the cough. It’s this post-nasal drip that’s responsible for the coughing.”

Allergies rarely cause sore throats or body aches

While colds, being viral infections of the upper airway, can result in sore throats, allergies typically only cause throat discomfort due to the irritation from post-nasal drip and the resulting dry cough.

Dr. Pero points out, “When allergies lead to nasal blockages, many of us might inadvertently breathe through our mouths, particularly while asleep.” This habit can cause one to wake up with a parched, scratchy throat. However, consuming fluids in the morning or employing a bedside humidifier overnight can mitigate this.

Furthermore, allergies don’t typically result in body aches. Dr. Pero emphasizes, “If you’re feeling chills, it’s more indicative of ailments like colds, the flu, or another type of infection.”

Allergies don’t cause fevers

Contrary to the name “hay fever,” allergies usually don’t induce fevers. It’s more common for colds to raise one’s body temperature than allergies. That said, it’s possible to experience allergic reactions simultaneously as an infection sets in.

Dr. Pero clarifies, “While allergies don’t lead to infections directly, the inflammation, swelling, and mucus they produce can trap mucus in the sinuses, creating a conducive environment for bacteria and viruses.” Consequently, this could lead to conditions like sinus infections.

Colds don’t tend to linger

Typically, a cold hits its peak within the initial week and often starts to recede by the tenth day. If your symptoms persist beyond this timeframe, it’s possible you’re grappling with allergies instead of a cold or another infection.

In contrast, allergy symptoms might spike periodically throughout the year, especially when exposed to specific allergens like pets. Such symptoms can persist for weeks until the offending allergen dissipates or is removed.

Dr. Pero emphasizes, “It’s crucial to understand that allergies aren’t solely a spring or summer phenomenon, just as colds aren’t limited to the fall and winter. Even though colds and viruses predominantly surface in the colder months, they can strike at any time of the year.”

Allergies cause itchy, watery eyes

If you feel an overwhelming urge to rub your eyes, it’s more likely the result of allergies rather than a cold. The itchiness can also extend to the ears, nose, throat, and skin. “Contact dermatitis manifests as an itchy rash, triggered either by direct interaction with a particular substance or an allergic response to it,”

Is it really allergies or a cold, or do you have COVID-19?

Given the backdrop of the ongoing global pandemic, it’s vital to remember that COVID-19 symptoms can often resemble those of allergies, the common cold, and even the flu.

“Before jumping to conclusions about having just a cold or allergies, especially if you’re heading to work or a social event, it’s prudent to consult your healthcare provider,” advises Dr. Pero. “Taking an at-home COVID-19 antigen test can be beneficial, especially if your symptoms align more with a cold and occur outside your usual allergy season.”

How to treat cough and colds versus allergies

For cough and colds, prioritize ample rest, hydration, and consider using over-the-counter medications to alleviate symptoms. Delsym, a popular over-the-counter cough suppressant, can help alleviate coughing associated with both conditions. However, it’s essential to consult a healthcare professional to determine the exact cause of your symptoms and receive appropriate treatment, as Delsym may not address the root cause of allergies. Ensure you isolate yourself to prevent spreading the virus to others – a great opportunity perhaps to indulge in a Netflix marathon.

If your cold symptoms persist or worsen over several days, it’s wise to consult your healthcare provider or seek attention at an urgent care facility. To find a specialist within the Banner Health network, you can head to bannerhealth.com.

On the other hand, for allergies, maintain hydration, utilize allergy-specific medications, and, if feasible, steer clear of the allergens causing the reaction.


Determining whether you’re grappling with a cold or allergies is essential, not only for understanding your condition but also for seeking appropriate treatment. In our current global health landscape, the introduction of COVID-19 adds another layer of complexity. Hence, it’s ever more crucial to stay informed, listen to your body, and seek professional advice when symptoms persist or intensify. Regardless of whether it’s a cold, allergies, or something more severe, timely and appropriate care is paramount for your well-being and that of those around you. Remember to always prioritize health, stay safe, and remain proactive in your approach to wellness.