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Allergies vs. Colds

You wake up with a cough, a runny nose and a scratchy throat. You’re coming down with something, but is it a cold or seasonal allergies? Since the common cold and allergies can linger year-round and share similar symptoms, it can be challenging to differentiate the two when the sniffling and stuffiness start.

Estimates suggest that Americans suffer from one billion colds each year, and over 50 million people experience seasonal allergies.

So how can you tell the difference between a cold and allergies? Fortunately, there are a few critical factors to differentiate the two. Learn the difference between these two conditions so you can get the best possible treatment and start feeling better.

Cold vs. Allergy Symptoms Check

While colds and allergies overlap when it comes to symptoms like sneezing and stuffiness, they are very different conditions. The common cold is caused by a virus, while allergies are your immune system’s response to allergens like pollen or pet dander.

To tell the difference between allergies and a cold, you want to consider precisely how you’re feeling to narrow down treatment options and get faster relief. 


A cold is an infection that hundreds of different viruses could cause. It most often affects your:

  • Nose
  • Sinuses
  • Throat
  • Trachea (windpipe)

Colds can be contagious up to two days before symptoms start and last two weeks after exposure. While there’s no cure for the common cold, symptoms are generally mild and don’t typically result in severe health issues on their own. Most adults experience colds for just a few days, while some symptoms may last several weeks. You can treat the common cold with rest, pain relievers or cold remedies like decongestants. 

You probably have a cold if:

  • You have a cough, fever, headache or body aches: While there are hundreds of different cold viruses that some cause different symptoms, you won’t typically experience coughing, fever or achiness if you have allergies.
  • Your symptoms change over a few days: You likely may have a cold if your symptoms start with a fever and stuffy nose and become a sore throat or cough as your health begins improving.
  • Your mucus is yellow, green or thick: As your immune cells combat the virus, your mucus often will become discolored or thick.


Allergies occur when your body reacts to foreign substances like pollen, mold, animal dander or specific foods. Some people may come into contact with these things and not experience symptoms, while others may react.

In this case, your immune system fights back against the substance by producing antibodies to remove it. The immune system response can cause inflammation of your:

  • Sinuses
  • Skin
  • Airways
  • Digestive system 

Depending on the allergy, you may experience symptoms at a particular time of the year when the allergen is in the air. Seasonal allergies produce symptoms that vary in duration and severity. Most allergies may last weeks, though this comes down to the particular allergen and your body.

Like the common cold, most allergies cannot be cured, but some techniques may relieve symptoms. You might treat seasonal allergies with antihistamines, nasal steroid sprays or decongestants. It’s also essential to avoid exposure to allergens to avoid the symptoms.

You can tell if you have seasonal allergies if:

  • You have itchy or watery eyes: One of the telltale signs you have allergies rather than a cold is if you’re experiencing itchy or watery eyes. It’s rare to experience this symptom if suffering from the common cold. Swollen eyes and an itch in your nose or on the roof of the mouth are other signs allergies are causing your illness.
  • Have clear or watery mucus: Unlike the common cold, your mucus won’t be discolored or thick, but rather clear or watery. It will likely stay this way throughout the duration of your symptoms. 
  • Your symptoms have lasted for several weeks: While a cold tends to clear up in a week or two, allergies can last much longer — for several weeks and beyond. 
  • You’ve experienced unchanging symptoms: Allergies might feel intense for the first few days, though they won’t change much as your illness continues. 

Factors to Consider When Figuring Out If It’s A Cold Or Allergy

While colds and allergies have several symptoms in common, you can determine the root cause of your illness by considering further signs: 

Time of Year

When you’re sick and unsure how to tell the difference between a cold and allergies, consider the time of the year you started feeling unwell to narrow down the cause.

While you can develop a cold at any time of the year, colds and the flu usually show up in the late fall or winter since viruses spread faster in cold weather. Your immune system might be weaker at these times, and you may be indoors more often, making it easier for viruses to spread from person to person.

If you find yourself sneezing and sniffling in the spring or fall, you might have allergies. Most seasonal allergies tend to strike in spring when pollen becomes airborne. However, it comes down to what you’re allergic to since certain trees, grass and other plants pollinate at different times of the year across various locations.

How Quickly Symptoms Developed

Did your illness come on quickly or slowly? This should tell you what you need to know — allergies tend to come on as soon as you’re exposed to an allergen. Meanwhile, different cold symptoms present themselves slowly over time and may take a few days to develop fully. 

Seasonal Allergies vs. Common Cold — FAQ

We’ll answer some of the most common questions we receive about allergies and common colds below. 

1. How Long Do Allergies Last?

While recovery from the common cold tends to be quick, allergies can last two to three weeks before dissipating. Seasonal allergies may occur throughout for several months, depending on the trigger.

2. How Long Do Colds Last?

The average cold should last seven to 10 days, though some may last longer. Adults tend to experience a cold two to three times a year, while children might experience even more. 

3. Do Allergies Make You Cough?

While allergies like hay fever can cause a dry cough, most allergies aren’t accompanied by a cough. You might develop one if you’re sensitive to dust, dander, mold or other allergens, though generally, allergies only trigger coughing due to post-nasal drip or asthma.

Get Allergy or Cold Relief at SouthStar Urgent Care

While most colds produce mild symptoms that will clear up with at-home care, visit an urgent care clinic if symptoms worsen or don’t clear up after 10 days. If your allergies are severe and you have trouble breathing or swelling in the mouth, seek immediate medical attention.

At SouthStar Urgent Care, our providers offer friendly and professional service whether you’re suffering from injury or illness. Experience our award-winning customer care as we treat your common cold or allergies and help you get the relief you need.

To schedule an appointment, browse our network of clinics and get in line online today!