Allergy or a Cold? Four Ways to Tell the Difference

Know the symptoms

Although allergies and the common cold cause a great deal of upper respiratory problems, there are slight differences between the two conditions. Allergic symptoms often include itching, sneezing, watery eyes, and runny nose with clear drainage. These symptoms are usually made better rather quickly with an antihistamine. Whereas cold symptoms may include runny nose with a cloudy or discolored discharge, sore throat, fatigue, body aches, and possibly fever.


Onset and duration of symptoms are also a great clue. Allergies start immediately after exposure to a known allergen, usually within minutes. Alternatively, most cold symptoms start a bit slower, and usually develop over a few days. The common cold may last 3-14 days, whereas allergy symptoms can persist for months with constant exposure to an allergen.

A repeat offender?

Allergic reactions are triggered by harmless substances in the air, such as pollen or cat dander. When exposed to these small substances, cells in the body release histamine and other compounds that cause allergy symptoms, like itching or sneezing. These reactions happen consistently after each exposure. So, individuals who are allergic to tree pollen will experience symptoms during the springtime every year. Another example is individuals with cat allergy who consistently experience symptoms while around cats.

Skin testing can help

It’s not always easy to tell the difference between allergy and cold symptoms. Skin testing in an allergy office is a very helpful way to identify the underlying cause. If allergies are the case, there are a variety of treatment options that can be tailored to each patient to find much needed relief. Long-term relief is also available through immunotherapy, or allergy shots, which can help not only treat allergies, but also prevent the development of asthma.

For further questions on allergic conditions, including skin testing and personalized treatment options, call (757) 410-0981 to make an appointment with Dr. Christina Ortiz at TPMG Coastal Allergy in Chesapeake and Virginia Beach.