The Sneeze

Is it Allergies? Or is it a Cold?

July 23, 2021

Written By:

Written By: Meenakshi Rana, MD

Your nose is running, your eyes are watery, and you feel fatigued. Do you have a cold? Or is it Allergies?

The above symptoms are common between both allergies and a cold, but how do you distinguish one from the other?


Colds are commonly caused by viruses and are therefore contagious. The virus enters your body through the mouth, eyes, or nose. It also is spread through droplets in the air when someone who has a cold coughs and sneezes. Spread can also occur by touch or contact with someone who is sick by sharing contaminated items, such as eating utensils, phones, hand towels. 

Allergic rhinitis, unlike a common cold, is not caused by any virus. Therefore, it is not contagious. Allergies occur when a foreign object, such as dust, dander or pollens, enter the body and are mistakenly identified by the immune system as an invader. In response, the body releases histamines in the blood. These unleashed histamines can lead to symptoms similar to a common cold, and delicate mucus membranes in the nose and respiratory tract may swell, and your nose may become stuffed up or runny.


Colds and Allergies can have similar symptoms which make them hard to distinguish themselves from one another. Sneezing and coughing can occur with both colds and allergies, but with a common cold, fever and body aches can occur which are not a sign of allergies. Gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea will also be unique to a viral infection or cold.

With allergies – Think Itchy! Itchiness of the roof of your mouth, throat, ears and eyes can occur which will not be seen with a cold. 

Duration of symptoms will be a key difference.

Allergy symptoms usually last as long as you are exposed to the allergen, which could be about 6 weeks during pollen seasons in the spring, summer, or fall. Colds rarely last beyond 2 weeks.


Prevention measures are important for both colds and allergies. 

You can reduce your risk of getting a cold by following a few simple steps such as washing hands often, avoiding touching your face, frequently disinfecting commonly used surfaces, and staying home when sick.

Avoidance measures for allergies are not always easy to do, especially if you are allergic to plant pollens or your own pet, however if you can – staying inside on high pollen count days, keeping windows of the home closed, and changing clothing after working or playing outside will help to control or reduce symptoms.


It is important to know the difference between a cold and allergies because this will affect how we treat our symptoms. 

Treatment of cold symptoms involves getting good rest, keeping the body well hydrated, and medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to keep fevers down and for pain control.

Antihistamines, nasal steroid sprays, and decongestants are the main medications used to treat allergies.