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April 18, 2024

Is It Allergies or a Cold? Answers from Latonja Ivery, MD

by Latonja Ivery, MD

Sniffling, sneezing, and congestion – these symptoms can leave you wondering whether you’re battling a cold or suffering from allergies, especially when the weather is so temperamental. While both conditions share similar symptoms, understanding the key differences is crucial for effective management and timely medical intervention. Let’s cover the main differences between allergies versus colds, enabling you to discern between the two and get the appropriate care.


Allergies are immune system reactions triggered by exposure to allergens such as pollen, pet dander, dust mites, or mold spores. When allergens enter the body, the immune system perceives them as threats and releases histamines, leading to allergic symptoms. Common signs what you’re experiencing might be allergies include:

Seasonal Patterns: Allergies often follow seasonal patterns, with symptoms worsening during specific times of the year when allergens are prevalent, such as spring or fall.

Itchy Eyes and Nose: Itchiness in the eyes, nose, or throat is a hallmark symptom of allergies, distinguishing them from colds.

Clear Nasal Discharge: Allergy-related nasal discharge is typically clear and watery, in contrast to the thicker, colored mucus associated with colds.

Sneezing: Frequent and repetitive sneezing is common with allergies as the body attempts to expel allergens.

Symptoms Persisting Beyond 7-10 Days: Allergy symptoms can last for weeks or months, especially if allergen exposure continues.


Colds, also known as viral upper respiratory infections, are caused by various viruses, including rhinoviruses, coronaviruses, and adenoviruses. Unlike allergies, colds are contagious and can spread from person to person through respiratory droplets. Key characteristics of colds include:

Gradual Onset: Colds typically develop gradually over a few days, with symptoms worsening as the infection progresses.

Fever and Body Aches: While rare in allergies, colds may cause fever, muscle aches, and general malaise, indicating an active viral infection.

Thick, Colored Nasal Discharge: Unlike the clear discharge seen in allergies, nasal discharge associated with colds is often thicker and may be yellow or green in color.

Sore Throat: Colds commonly cause throat irritation and soreness, which may be absent or minimal in allergy-related symptoms.

Symptoms Resolving Within 7-10 Days: Most colds resolve within one to two weeks, with symptoms gradually improving as the immune system clears the viral infection.

When to Seek Medical Attention

While both allergies and colds can be managed at home with over-the-counter remedies and self-care measures, certain circumstances warrant medical evaluation:

Persistent or Worsening Symptoms: If your symptoms persist or worsen despite home remedies, it’s advisable to consult a healthcare professional to rule out complications or underlying conditions.

Severe Symptoms: Severe allergic reactions, such as difficulty breathing, swelling of the face or throat, or anaphylaxis, require immediate medical attention.

High Fever: Fever above 100.4°F (38°C) accompanied by body aches, chills, and fatigue may indicate a more serious viral infection requiring medical evaluation.

Prolonged Illness: If your cold symptoms persist beyond 10 days or worsen after initially improving, it’s essential to seek medical advice to rule out bacterial complications or other underlying conditions.

Underlying Health Conditions: Individuals with chronic respiratory conditions, weakened immune systems, or other health concerns should consult a healthcare provider promptly to ensure appropriate management and minimize complications.

Distinguishing between allergies and colds can be challenging due to their overlapping symptoms. However, understanding the subtle differences can help you make informed decisions about self-care and when to seek medical attention. Whether you’re battling seasonal allergies or a viral infection, listening to your body and consulting a healthcare professional when needed is key to maintaining your well-being and getting back on the path to recovery.

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