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How do Allergy Symptoms Differ from Cold Symptoms?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Colds and allergies often present with similar symptoms, which can make it hard to determine why someone is feeling unwell. There are some key differences between allergy symptoms and cold symptoms which can help people narrow down the cause of ill health more quickly, and receive the most appropriate treatment. In either case, if someone develops a very high fever or difficulty breathing, he or she should be taken to a hospital for medical treatment to address the situation.

In the case of a cold, symptoms emerge within three days of exposure. An itchy, tight feeling in the back of the nose is common, along with sneezing, coughing, runny nose, and sometimes watery eyes. Many people also feel fatigued or listless, and they can develop a low-grade fever. Within four days to a week, the symptoms will usually resolve themselves, although drinking lots of fluids and staying warm can help patients recover more quickly. If cold symptoms last more than a week, this can be an indicator that the patient is experiencing more serious issues such as seasonal allergies.

Allergy symptoms emerge within minutes to hours of exposure, and they will not go away until the allergen and the patient are separated. Depending on the type of allergic reaction occurring, people can experience a range of symptoms. Anaphylaxis and hives, two symptoms of severe allergies, are usually not confused with the common cold, but seasonal allergies or dust allergies can seem like a cold at first.

Seasonal allergy symptoms include a runny and itchy nose, watery eyes, some breathing obstruction, sneezing, coughing, and a sense of fatigue. Allergy symptoms do not usually include fever, which can distinguish them from a cold. Because seasonal allergies are caused by the environment, the symptoms will persist for weeks or months, and in the case of allergies to mold, dust, and substances inside a house, the symptoms will become chronic until the situation is addressed.

If people develop these symptoms with the change of the seasons, a move to a new home or workplace, or another change in their environment, they are probably allergy symptoms. A doctor can help the patient narrow down the cause of the allergies and determine the best treatment plan to take. When these symptoms emerge during the winter, or shortly after attending a large event with a lot of people, they are more probably cold symptoms, in which case they will resolve on their own.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By dfoster85 — On Jul 19, 2012

@ElizaBennett - There are *some* differences, though, that make it helpful to know what you're dealing with. For instance, if you have a cold, it can help shorten the duration (according to some research) if you start taking zinc lozenges right away.

If you are looking for a more long-term way to treat allergy symptoms, you can ask about having allergy shots. I always thought that those were shots of medicine, but apparently not. Instead of treating the symptoms (which, yes, is pretty similar for a cold and for allergies) allergy shots treat the cause; they actually make you less reactive to certain substances over time.

By ElizaBennett — On Jul 19, 2012

Fortunately, the treatment for allergy symptoms and treatment for a cold are pretty similar! Either way, an OTC antihistamine and/or decongestant should give you a lot of relief, and within a day or two it should be pretty clear what you have -- because a cold will go away, but if you are still being exposed to the allegen, your allergy symptoms will stay. (And if you aren't, and they don't, the problem is still solved!)

I have seasonal allergies and it makes it hard for me to tell when I have a cold. I'll think, "Man, my allergies are bad today," and then the next day I'll feel all tired and achy and have chills, and then I'll realize that it's actually a cold.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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