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Is it Allergies or a Cold?

It’s winter and cold season is in full swing. But since colds and allergies share many of the same symptoms, it can be hard to tell if you’re coming down with something or suffering from allergies. Here are ways to help tell some of the differences between allergies and a cold, so you can find the right relief for your symptoms.

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What Are Allergies?

If you have allergies, your immune system mistakes a substance that is ordinarily harmless to most people as a threat and goes into defense mode. These substances, that can come from sources like pollen, pet dander, mold and dust mites are called allergens. Your allergies are not contagious.

What is a Cold?

A cold happens when a virus makes its way into your body. Your immune system responds to this foreign invader by attacking the virus. Some of the cold symptoms, like runny nose and nasal congestion, can feel a lot like allergies so it can be hard to tell the difference. A cold is contagious. You can catch it when someone with a cold sneezes, coughs or touches you.1 2

Typical Characteristics of Allergies vs. a Cold

Chart: Allergy versus cold symptoms. Here are some symptoms that are typical of allergies and colds. Runny nose is common to both airborne allergies and colds. Stuffy nose is common to both airborne allergies and colds. Sneezing is common to both airborne allergies and colds. Itchy, watery eyes are common to airborne allergies, but uncommon to colds. Cough is possible with airborne allergies, and cough is common with colds. Thin, watery and clear mucus is a symptom of airborne allergies, while thick and yellow or green mucus is a symptom of colds. Note that yellow mucus discharge could indiciate an infection requiring medical attention. You may feel tired from symptoms of both airborne allergies and colds. With airborne allergies, sometimes you may have a sore throat, and with colds, sore throat is common. Feeling aches/pains is uncommon with airborne allergies, and with colds, general aches/pains are common. Airborne allergies are not associated with a fever, and fever is rare with colds.

Learn Some of the Differences Between Allergies and a Cold

While colds and allergies can have similar symptoms, here are some questions to help you tell if you need to reach for a Claritin® product or curl up with a bowl of chicken noodle soup and binge watch your favorite shows:

1. How quickly did your symptoms strike?

Allergy symptoms tend to hit all at once when you come into contact with an allergen. Symptoms of a cold usually appear one at a time and develop slowly over a few days.

2. How long have you had symptoms?

Colds typically run their course within 7-10 days. Allergy symptoms can last weeks or months, and will be present as long as you are exposed to the allergen. If your cold symptoms last longer than 10 days, talk to your doctor.

3. What color and texture is your mucus?

Runny nose and sneezing are common symptoms of both colds and allergies. But you can often tell the difference by looking at the color and texture of your mucus. If you have allergies, your mucus will typically be clear, thin and watery. If you have a cold, the mucus from coughing or sneezing may be thick and yellow or green. Yellow or green mucus could indicate an infection requiring medical attention.

4. Do you have body aches and pains?

Colds may come with slight body aches and pains. Allergies are not usually associated with body aches and pains.

5. What time of year is it?

Colds are more common during the winter months,but could also occur any time of the year. Indoor allergies can happen year-round and outdoor seasonal allergies are more common in the spring through fall when pollen counts are high.1

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  1. Treatment of the Common Cold in Children and Adults. American Family Physician. Accessed December 27, 2017.

  2. Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed December 27, 2017.

  3. Allergies: Questions & Answers. Cleveland Clinic. Accessed November 5, 2017.

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