What's the Difference Between Allergies and Colds?

It can be easy to mistake a cold for allergies, and vice versa. Cough, runny nose, stuffiness, for example, are common with both conditions. But while they're similar in many ways, colds and allergies are quite different. Aside from having different causes, subtle nuances in symptoms and how they present can help distinguish one from the other.

What Are Allergies?

If you have allergies, your immune system mistakenly overreacts to ordinarily harmless substances—what are known as allergens (allergy triggers). While pollen, pet dander, and dust are common ones, really anything can be an allergen.

When your body is exposed to such triggers, it releases histamines to attack the allergen. Unfortunately, these immune chemicals cause the itching, sneezing, runny nose, and watery eyes associated with allergies.

What Is a Cold?

A cold is caused by any number of viruses (mainly rhinoviruses) which cause your immune system to attack and remove the virus from your body.

Symptoms

The onslaught of symptoms you experience from a cold or allergies is the result of your immune system fighting off potentially harmful substances (or, in the case of allergies, what the body mistakes as harmful). The cocktail of immune system chemicals your body releases to fight off the invader can cause nasal inflammation (leading to feelings of congestion) and increased mucus production (causing a runny nose and sneezing).

Since colds and allergies have so many symptoms in common (including a runny and/or stuffy nose, sneezing, sore throat, and fatigue), it can be difficult to tell the difference between the two when symptoms first strike. Thankfully, most of the time there are a few telltale signs to pinpoint the culprit.

Allergy

  • Itchy eyes, nose, or throat

  • Frequent sneezing

  • Runny nose (with clear mucus)

  • Symptoms all occur at same time

  • Can persistent for months

Cold

  • Fever

  • Coughing

  • Runny nose (with yellow or green mucus)

  • Symptoms progress one at a time

  • Typically only lasts three to 10 days

How to Treat Allergies

The best allergy "treatment" is to avoid what causes your allergies in the first place. However, sometimes it can be impossible to avoid everything you're allergic to. In those instances, there are two types of allergy treatments that can help ease your symptoms: medications and immunotherapy.

Medications

Allergy treatment often includes medications like antihistamines and decongestants to control symptoms.

Common allergy medications include:

An allergist can help you determine which medicines are best for you.

Immunotherapy

Allergy immunotherapy can be a good option if you have severe allergies that you are unable to control. Your doctor may prescribe allergy tablets (a form of sublingual immunotherapy, or SLIT) if you're allergic to ragweed, grass pollen, or dust mites. Over time, this treatment increase your tolerance to pollen and reduce your symptoms.

If this doesn't work, your doctor may recommend allergy shots (also referred to as immunotherapy injections). Allergy shots involve regular injections that contain tiny amounts of the allergen. They reduce your immune system's overreaction to the allergen and, therefore, reduce symptoms.

How to Treat a Cold

Over time, your body will naturally get rid of a cold virus. Although over-the-counter medications cannot make your cold go away, they can relieve your symptoms and help you feel better.

Medications like Tylenol (acetaminophen) and Advil (ibuprofen) can help lower your fever.

A Word From Verywell

While some allergy and cold symptoms are similar, these are two very different health conditions. Knowing the differences between the two can help you decide how to treat your symptoms when they start and know whether or not you need to seek medical attention.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Kennedy JL, Turner RB, Braciale T, Heymann PW, Borish L. Pathogenesis of rhinovirus infection. Curr Opin Virol. 2012;2(3):287-293. doi:10.1016/j.coviro.2012.03.008

  2. Cleveland Clinic. Allergies: Questions and Answers. Updated March 25, 2016.

  3. American College of Asthma, Allergy, and Immunology. Seasonal Allergies. Updated December 28, 2017.

  4. Sur DKC, Plesa ML. Treatment of allergic rhinitis. Am Fam Physician. 2015;92(11):985-992.

  5. Saporta D. Sublingual Immunotherapy: A Useful Tool for the Allergist in Private Practice. Biomed Res Int. 2016;2016:9323804. doi:10.1155/2016/9323804

  6. Elliott J, Kelly SE, Johnston A, Skidmore B, Gomes T, Wells GA. Allergen immunotherapy for the treatment of allergic rhinitis and/or asthma: an umbrella review. CMAJ Open. 2017;5(2):E373-E385. doi:10.9778/cmajo.20160066

  7. Cleveland Clinic. The Common Cold and the Flu: Management and Treatment. Updated August 2, 2016.