Do I Have Allergies, or Is This a Cold? How to Spot the Difference

Runny nose. Coughing. Sneezing. Piles of discarded tissues everywhere. Do you have allergies or a cold? It's often tough to figure out, but here are some simple tips to steer you in the right direction.

What Is the Cause of Your Symptoms?

Allergies and colds have similar symptoms, but the origin of these conditions is quite different. 

More than 200 different viruses cause the common cold. Rhinovirus is the most common and causes up to 40% of all colds. These infections are easily transmitted, especially in the first few days. Sneezing sends infected droplets flying through the air contaminating everything they land on. Prevent the spread of colds by avoiding close contact with the sick, frequently washing your hands, and avoiding touching your face.

Allergies (allergic rhinitis) are your body's response to allergen exposure. What's an allergen? Simply put, an allergen is any substance causing an allergic reaction. Allergens are usually harmless to others, but in a sensitive person, they create many symptoms. When exposed to allergens, the immune system overreacts and releases chemicals called histamines. Histamines, in turn, rev up your allergy symptoms.

Now that that's cleared up, which is it? A cold or allergies?

One of the best ways to determine if you have a cold or allergies is the duration of your symptoms. A common cold lasts around a week or two. Allergies, on the other hand, can last for months or longer.

Do other family members have similar complaints? Have you been to a large gathering or around someone who is sick? If so, you might have a good old-fashioned cold.

What Are the Common Symptoms of Allergies and Colds?

As stated previously, many of the features of allergies and colds are similar, but there are some distinct differences. 


  • Predictable seasonal symptoms
  • Clear, watery nasal drainage
  • Itchy eyes and nose
  • Red, watery eyes
  • Drainage in the throat
  • Scratchy throat
  • Absence of fever
  • Sneezing
  • Lasts longer than a week or two


  • Thick nasal drainage, sometimes yellow or green
  • Chest or head congestion
  • Coughing
  • Low-grade temperature
  • Sore throat
  • Body aches
  • Decreased sense of taste and smell
  • Generally feel unwell
  • Headache

Are There Any Tests I Can Take to Confirm If I Have Allergies or a Cold?

You can eliminate more severe diseases like Covid-19 and the flu with testing, but there are no tests for the common cold. However, an allergist can perform various tests to identify allergies.

  1. Skin test: This method is the most common type of allergy testing. It is simple and quick, and most insurance plans cover skin testing. The healthcare provider places drops of different allergens on the skin in rows and columns. They then prick or scratch the drops into the surface of the skin. A small red bump or welt will appear at the scratch site if you are allergic to the sample.
  2. Intradermal test: Healthcare providers use this type of test when the skin prick tests are inconclusive. Intradermal testing involves injecting a small amount of allergen under the skin and is commonly used to test allergies to bee venom or penicillin.
  3. Challenge test: This test is often used for drug or food allergies. A minimal amount of the suspected allergen is inhaled or eaten to see if there is an allergic response. Please note that only a medical professional should perform this test. 
  4. Blood test: Labs test the levels of immune antibodies. Most allergens are harmless to others, but if you have an allergy, your body will respond by producing immune antibodies. This test is more expensive, and insurance may not pay for it.

What Is the Best Way to Manage and Treat Allergies and Colds?

Should my doctor give me antibiotics to help fight this cold? Antibiotics do not work on viruses, so they are useless in treating the common cold. But you can relieve your symptoms and confidently fight simple allergies and colds at home. 

Treatment for Colds

  • Take fever and pain reducers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil).
  • Try over-the-counter cold and cough medicines.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated and thin secretions.
  • Place a humidifier by your bed. 
  • Use extra pillows while sleeping to raise your head, easing breathing and decreasing congestion.
  • Drink hot liquids such as tea or broth to ease a sore throat.
  • Lozenges help soothe the throat and suppress a cough.
  • A hot bath or shower uses steam to open nasal passages and relieve generalized body aches.
  • Get extra rest.
  • Try supplements such as echinacea. One study showed that echinacea reduced the duration of a cold in children. Vitamin C can also relieve cold symptoms.

Treatment for Allergies 

Common allergies fall into three categories:

  1. Outdoor culprits such as trees, grass, pollen, and weeds
  2. Food allergies such as milk, nuts, fish, eggs, wheat, and soy
  3. Household items include cigarette smoke, dust mites, mold, animal dander, and cockroaches

80% of people encounter dust mites, and 60% contend with animal dander. Carpets, bedding, and soft toys harbor these allergens. Mold or insects also trigger many people. Combat these issues with the following tips:

  • Avoid carpeting if possible, especially in bedrooms. 
  • Vacuum at least weekly.
  • Avoid heavy curtains.
  • Encase your mattress and box springs with zippered plastic or allergen-resistant covers.
  • Wash your bedding in hot water weekly.
  • Keep pets out of the bedroom.
  • Do not smoke in the house.
  • Control mold with proper ventilation and dehumidifiers.
  • Fix leaks and damp areas to discourage mold growth. 
  • Keep bathrooms clean and well-ventilated.
  • Control cockroaches by keeping food and garbage covered and using traps.
  • Consider professional pest control

Over-the-counter medications are available to treat annoying allergy symptoms. Antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl), cetirizine (Zyrtec), and loratadine (Claritin) are available in both pill and liquid form. These treatments relieve itchy eyes, sneezing, and runny nose. Additionally, nasal sprays relieve nasal congestion.

If allergies are severe, allergen immunotherapy (allergy shots) might be the treatment of choice. 

Can Allergies and Colds Coexist in the Same Person?

Absolutely. A cold can occur at the same time as allergies. Allergies do not cause colds, but inflammation and trapped mucous in your nose make it easier for viruses and other bacteria to grow, developing into a cold or sinus infection.

You can safely monitor and treat most colds and allergies at home, but some signs are emergencies. If you or a loved one have an upper respiratory tract infection or allergies and experience any of the following, seek medical attention immediately:

  • Swelling of the face, lips, or tongue
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Bluish or gray lips
  • Wheezing
  • Dizziness
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Clammy skin
  • Confusion
  • Abdominal pain

Colds and allergies have many of the same symptoms, making it hard to tell them apart. Knowing the causes and remedies keeps you and your family safe and comfortable during allergy and cold seasons.


American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. (2020, September 28). All About Allergy Testing.

American Lung Association. (2023, March 27). Facts About the Common Cold

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. (2015). How Can I Control Indoor Allergens and Improve Indoor Air Quality?.

Checkable. (2022). 7 Natural Sore Throat Remedies.

Ran, L., Zhao, W., Want, H., Zhao, Y., & Bu, H. (2020). Vitamin C as a Supplementary Therapy in Relieving Symptoms of the Common Cold: A Meta-Analysis of 10 Randomized Controlled Trials. BioMed Research International, 8573742. doi: 10.1155/2020/8573742.

Weishaupt, R., Bavchler, A., Feldhaus, S., Lang, G., Klein, P. & Schoop, R. (2020). Safety and Dose-Dependent Effects of Echinacea for the Treatment of Acute Cold Episodes in Children: A Multicenter, Randomized, Open-Label Clinical Trial. Children, 7(12), 292. DOI: 10.3390/children7120292.

Juli Curtis

Author Bio

Juli Curtis BSN, RN is a freelance health and wellness writer and the owner of Write Health Right Now, LLC. She has been a nurse for over 30 years and enjoys travel, interesting food, and nonfiction. She lives near Little Rock, AR with her boxers Manny and Rizzo.