Cold vs. Allergies; Which one do I have?


When you are sneezy and stuffed up, how can you tell if it is a cold or allergies?  Below, you’ll learn about how to tell and the differences between to two.

What Are Colds and Allergies?

Colds are caused by viruses, which are is are small infectious organisms that reproduce inside the cells of other living things.  When a virus gets in your body, your immune system attacks it, quite often with the effects of this attack being congestion and coughing.  The viruses that cause colds are contagious. You can pick them up when an infected person sneezes, coughs, or shakes hands with you. After a couple of weeks, at the most, your immune system fights off the virus and you should stop having symptoms.

Allergies are caused by an overactive immune system – it is not an infectious process. If you have allergies, your body releases chemicals such as histamine, just as it does when fighting a cold. This can cause swelling in your nasal passages, a runny nose, coughing, and sneezing. Unlike the viruses that cause colds, allergies are not contagious

Differences Between Colds and Allergies

Typically, colds last 3-14 days while allergies can last for days to months  – or as long as you are exposed to the allergen (object causing the allergy).  Common allergens are pollen, ragweed, and pet dander. Colds most often occur in the wintertime while allergies can occur anytime throughout the year, although most are seasonal.

The onset of cold symptoms can take a few days to appear after infection with the virus, while allergy symptoms can begin immediately after exposure to the allergen. Cold symptoms often include cough, sore throat, body aches, fever, fatigue and a stuffy or runny nose with clear or yellow mucus.  Allergies on the other hand occasionally have cough, fatigue and sore throat but typically will not include fever or body aches.

The most important difference is that colds usually don’t last longer than 14 days. If you still have symptoms after two weeks, see your doctor. These may be allergy symptoms or a sign of another problem.

Prevention and Treatment of Colds and Allergies

Because the causes of cold and allergy symptoms are quite different, preventing them requires different strategies.

To prevent cold symptoms, prevent the cold-causing virus from getting into your system.  Keep your distance from people who have colds. Wash your hands often. To protect others, always cover your mouth and nose (with a tissue or your sleeve, rather than your hands) when sneezing or coughing.

To prevent allergy symptoms, avoid substances you’re allergic to, called allergens. For example, if you are allergic to pollen, try to avoid outdoor activity on days where pollen counts (which are often reported during local weather reports) are high.


Being mindful of the difference between colds and allergies will help you properly prevent or treat symptoms once they arise. Stay tuned for our upcoming article where we tackle how to manage seasonal allergies so you can enjoy the beautiful spring days coming our way.