How to know the difference between allergies and a cold

Woman with cold allergy symptoms blowing her nose

Sneezing, coughing, watery eyes…with so many similar symptoms, it’s tough to know how to tell the difference between hay fever and a cold, or more broadly, what the difference is between a cold and allergies. To help remove any confusion, it’s useful to know what they have in common, and to learn the difference between cold and allergy indicators. With this knowledge, you’ll soon be able to work out what you’re experiencing: colds or allergies.

Typically, an allergy to pollen – known as hay fever or allergic rhinitis – produces the most similar symptoms to a cold. If you’re wondering, ‘what’s the difference between hay fever and a cold?’, read on!

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Symptoms that an allergy and common cold share

Whether you have an allergy or common cold, you might experience some of the following symptoms:

  • Runny or blocked nose.
  • Sneezing.
  • Watery eyes.
  • Coughing.

As well as knowing what these conditions have in common, it’s even more useful to know what’s different. Allergies and colds also have contrasting symptoms.

What’s the difference between hay fever and a cold: Symptoms of a cold

There are additional cold symptoms that are uncommon with allergies. If you’re also experiencing any of the following, it’s more likely that you have a cold:

  • Aches and pains, which can include pressure in the face/ears.
  • Fatigue.
  • Sore throat.
  • Raised temperature, fever or sweating.

Aches and fevers are associated more with colds than allergies. Although the throat can be affected with an allergy or common cold, the feeling is often different – it’s usually sore with a cold, and itchy with an allergy. The same goes for eyes – colds or pollen allergy symptoms can include watery eyes, but they’re more common with an allergy, when they also tend to be itchy.

Symptoms of allergies

The following symptoms are typically present with allergies rather than colds:

  • Itchy eyes.
  • Itchy throat.
  • Itchy skin rash, or eczema symptoms worsening.
  • Wheezing, or asthma symptoms worsening.

Differences between colds and allergies

Besides differences in symptoms, there are three other ways to tell whether you have a cold or allergy:

  1. Timing. Hay fever is seasonal, so the timing of your symptoms can help you work out if you have a pollen allergy or common cold. If you always experience symptoms at the same time of year (typically spring or summer), then it’s likely to be an allergy. Although you can catch a cold at any time, it’s more common in the winter.
  2. Onset. When you have a cold, your symptoms tend to come on gradually, one by one. They usually start out mild, get worse and then ease off. In contrast, allergy symptoms typically come on quickly, all in one go, and stay consistent.
  3. Duration. How long your symptoms last can also help you figure out whether they’re down to colds or pollen allergy. The common cold typically lasts for a week and should get better with rest. However, allergies don’t get better until you remove the trigger or have treatment. Seasonal allergies like hay fever can last for weeks, or for however long the allergen is present.

What’s the difference between a cold and allergies?

Cold are caused by viruses, which are spread when a person coughs or sneezes and passes on virus droplets. Colds are contagious. Allergies, on the other hand, are not (although the tendency to get allergies can be hereditary). Allergic reactions happen when your immune system reacts to a particular substance as if it were harmful, producing histamines.

When to see a doctor

If you’re still unsure about how to tell the difference between allergies and a cold, you should contact your doctor – especially if your symptoms don’t improve with treatment, last more than 10 days, get worse, or if you have a rash or a fever.

Now that you have a clear idea about how to tell the difference between hay fever and a cold and what the difference is between a cold and allergy symptoms you can identify what you’re dealing with, and take action to feel better. Remember: timing, onset and duration!


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