How to Tell the Difference Between Colds and Allergies

While colds and allergies may have some similar symptoms, they have different causes. Colds are caused by viruses and are contagious. There are over 200 different viruses that can cause colds, and many cause different symptoms. When a cold-causing virus enters your body, your immune system attacks it, which causes the symptoms you experience: excessive mucus, cough, sneezing, congestion, stuffy and runny nose, sore throat, etc. While many of these symptoms also occur with allergies, colds tend to cause more mucus in the nose and throat (allergies usually cause a dry, itchy throat). Further, while colds and allergies may both cause the running of clear mucus in the beginning, a cold will often cause mucus to change color.

Colds are caused by viruses and are contagious.

Allergies, on the other hand, are not caused by viruses and are not contagious. Allergies are your body’s immune system reacting to allergens in the air. An allergic reaction happens when you come in contact with allergens—through the nose or mouth, or in the eyes—and your immune system reacts to them as a threat. There are many allergens out there—from pollen to dust to mold to pet dander, and so on. In response to the “threat,” your body releases histamine, which attempts to protect your body from the foreign substance. It is the histamine that causes many common allergy symptoms, such as runny nose, swollen, itchy eyes, and scratchy throat. With a cold, you may likely cough up mucus, but with allergies, your cough will be dry.

Allergies are not contagious and are your body’s immune system reacting to allergens in the air.

The duration of your symptoms can also be indicative of whether you have a cold or allergies. A cold typically does not last more than a week or two, while allergies can last an entire season or even be year-round. Additionally, if you have body chills and aches, this is generally a sign of a virus and cold—not just allergies.

It’s important to be open with your doctor or allergist about the symptoms you are experiencing. Your doctor will be able to determine whether the symptoms you are experiencing are being caused by a cold or allergies. Once the cause of the problem is determined, your doctor can then prescribe the treatment that is best for your needs. Many people can successfully prevent or treat seasonal allergies with over-the-counter antihistamines and allergy medicines, while others may need the help of a seasonal allergy shot. If a cold is the source of your troubles, taking the right medicines will help alleviate the symptoms and boost your immune system’s response to get the virus out of your system faster.

Schedule an appointment with one of our ENTs (Ear, Nose, and Throat) and/or our Allergist at Arkansas Otolaryngology Center. They will discuss your symptoms and diagnosis to find a suitable treatment option to fit your cold or allergy and get you back in the game!