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Is it Allergies or a Cold?

Because they have similar symptoms, it can be hard to tell the difference between a cold and allergies. Here are a few ways to help figure out what’s causing your sneezing, sniffles and congestion.


What Are Allergies?

Allergy symptoms are caused by your immune system mistaking harmless substances as threats and going into defense mode. These substances are called allergens. Common allergens include pollen , dust mites , pet dander and mold spores. Allergies are not contagious.

What is a Cold?

You catch a cold when a cold virus makes its way into your respiratory tract and your immune system attacks it. The immune system can’t always tell the difference between allergies vs. a cold, which is why symptoms are similar. Colds are contagious.

Symptoms of a Cold vs. Allergies  

Here are 10 key similarities and differences to help tell if you have a cold or allergies.

Typical Characteristics of Allergies vs. a Cold

Common Questions About Allergies and Colds

Symptoms can vary widely. Ask these questions to help determine if you should reach for a Claritin® product or curl up with a bowl of chicken noodle soup and rest:

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 sometimes appear one at a time and develop over a few days.

How long have you had symptoms?

Colds typically run their course within seven to 10 days. Allergy symptoms can last weeks or months. If your cold symptoms last longer than 10 days, talk to your doctor.

Have you been around sick people?

If co-workers, friends, family or classmates have had colds recently, there is a good chance the virus has been transmitted to you. Cold viruses are easily transmitted through coughing, sneezing and touching.

Where do your symptoms appear?

Do you only get stuffy when you go outside? Chances are you have a pollen allergy . Maybe you feel run down indoors, in which case you could have a dust mite or pet allergy . Cold symptoms don’t change with your environment.

What time of year is it?

Colds are more common during the winter months but can also occur at 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. Treatment of the Common Cold in Children and Adults. American Family Physician. Accessed April 10, 2020.
  2. Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed April 10, 2020.
  3. Allergies: Questions & Answers. Cleveland Clinic. Accessed April 10, 2020.
  4. Cold or Allergy: Which is it? Mayo Clinic. Accessed April 10, 2020.

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