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allergies vs colds

Allergies vs. Colds: Which is It?

By Mallory Logsdon, PA-C Updated on Jul 04, 2024
Table of Contents
    Key Takeaways
    • Allergies result from an immune response while colds are caused by viral infections.
    • Symptoms of allergies and colds can overlap, making it quite challenging to distinguish between the two.
    • Whereas allergies require tailored treatments, colds need supportive care until the virus resolves.

    When you start feeling under the weather with symptoms like a runny nose, sore throat, sneezing, and coughing, it's natural to wonder whether you're dealing with allergies or the common cold. These conditions may share similar signs and symptoms, but they have different causes and treatments.

    Closely examining their characteristics allows you to better determine what you’re dealing with allergies or a cold. This way, you can be guided toward the correct diagnosis and management strategies.

    Causes

    Allergies occur as a result of your immune system overreacting to certain particles in the air called “allergens.” Common allergens include pollen, dust mites, pet dander and mold. During exposure, your immune system reacts by mounting a defensive response, which involves the release of histamines and other chemicals, which cause nasal and eye symptoms such as sneezing, congestion, runny nose and itchy/watery eyes [*].

    On the other hand, the common cold is caused by viral infections. These viruses infect the lining of the nose and throat, causing inflammation and irritation. Viral particles spread through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks. Colds are typically more prevalent in the colder months but can occur at any time of year [*].

    Symptoms

    Here is a comparison of common allergies vs. cold symptoms:

     Symptoms Allergies Colds
    Fever Unlikely May occur, usually low-grade fever
    Sore Throat Often Sometimes — your throat will feel scratchy or itchy
    Sneezing Often Often
    Itchy, Watery Eyes Often Rarely
    Fatigue Sometimes, especially if allergies are untreated or poorly treated Sometimes
    Runny Nose Often Often
    Stuffy Nose Often Often
    Cough Sometimes — you may notice yourself coughing in certain environments or some seasons [*] Often
    Headache Uncommon — if it happens, it likely results from congestion/sinus inflammation Common

    The main symptoms that distinguish allergies from colds are itchy, watery eyes and the lack of fever with allergies. Another important difference is that colds tend to come on gradually while allergies can cause symptoms to appear suddenly upon exposure to a trigger.

    Duration

    The duration of allergies and a cold differs significantly.

    Allergies, when not treated, often persist over prolonged periods, potentially lasting weeks, months, or even year-round depending on the allergen exposure and individual sensitivity.

    In contrast, a cold, caused by viral infections, typically runs its course over a shorter time frame, resolving within 7-10 days. Cold symptoms tend to peak early and gradually diminish as the body's immune system clears the virus. They are also self-limiting, meaning they resolve on their own, unless there is development of a secondary bacterial infection such as a sinusitis or bronchitis, which can be common [*].

    Diagnosis

    Diagnosing allergies versus a cold involves distinct approaches based on their respective causes and symptom patterns.

    Allergies are typically diagnosed through a combination of patient history and allergy testing. A healthcare provider will inquire about symptoms, their duration, and any seasonal patterns or potential triggers like pollen, dust or pet dander. Allergy testing may include skin prick tests or blood tests to identify specific allergens triggering the immune response.

    On the other hand, diagnosing a cold often relies on recognizing common viral symptoms such as sore throat, cough, and nasal congestion. The diagnosis is primarily clinical, based on the presence of these symptoms. In some instances, viral testing may be conducted, especially if complications are suspected or symptoms are severe and persistent.

    Understanding these diagnostic methods helps healthcare providers tailor appropriate treatments for allergies vs colds.

    Treatment

    The treatment approaches for allergies and the common cold vary based on their underlying causes.

    Allergies, triggered by immune responses to specific allergens, are typically managed by avoiding allergens whenever possible. Medications such as antihistamines, which block histamine release and alleviate symptoms like itching and sneezing, are commonly used.

    Nasal sprays containing corticosteroids help reduce inflammation in the nasal passages, while decongestants may be used to relieve nasal congestion.

    At Allermi, our nasal spray combines different medications at the right percentages based on your individual profile in one formula. This tailored approach ensures patients experience immediate and long-term relief of their specific symptoms.

    In severe cases, allergen immunotherapy (allergy shots or tablets) can desensitize the immune system over time.

    Related: Decongestants vs. Antihistamines

    In contrast, treatment for the common cold focuses on over-the-counter medications like pain relievers (e.g., acetaminophen or ibuprofen) and decongestants can alleviate symptoms such as headache, and nasal congestion. Rest and hydration are also important to help the body fight off the virus.

    Antiviral medications may be prescribed in specific cases of respiratory viral infections, such as influenza or COVID, but are not used for common cold viruses.

    While allergies require strategies to avoid triggers and control immune responses, treating the common cold focuses on symptom relief and supportive care until the virus runs its course.

    The Bottom Line

    Distinguishing between allergies and the common cold is essential for effective management and treatment. While both conditions share similar symptoms such as runny nose and sneezing, their causes, diagnostic approaches, and management differ significantly.

    When it comes to treating allergies, personalization matters. Allermi's custom approach empowers you to manage your allergies more efficiently, supporting your long-term well-being!

    References:

    1. Abbas, M., Moussa, M., & Akel, H. (2023, July 17). Type I Hypersensitivity Reaction. StatPearls - NCBI Bookshelf. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK560561/
    2. Professional, C. C. M. (n.d.-a). Common Cold. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/12342-common-cold
    3. Cough | ACAAI Public Website. (2022, April 14). ACAAI Public Website. https://acaai.org/allergies/symptoms/cough/
    4. Stellrecht, K. (2017). Molecular Testing for Respiratory Viruses. In Elsevier eBooks (pp. 123–137). https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-12-800886-7.00011-x
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