#194 5 Ways to Tell if it is a Cold or Allergies

5 Ways to Tell if it is a Cold or Allergies

You’ve got a runny nose and you’re sneezing.  Is it a cold or allergies?

Knowing whether it is a cold or allergies can help you get the treatment you need and avoid all the stuff you don’t need.  In this article, I share 5 ways to determine if it is a cold or allergies.  I’ll also teach you how to avoid both conditions in the first place.

What causes colds?

Colds are caused by viruses.  These viruses are easily transferred by breathing them in through your nose or by touching something.

As it is impossible to tell who around you might be coming down with a cold, your main defense is to not let your body get run down and to wash your hands frequently.  Hand washing is particular important given the fact that viruses can live on a door handle for up to 24 hours.

What causes allergies?

With allergies, viruses and bacteria are not involved.  Rather, it is your immune system overreacting to something.

For example, pollen, mold, dust mites, or animal dander could trigger a reaction after breathing them in through your nose.  Alternatively, it could also be a food allergy from something you ate.

Regardless of the trigger, once you are exposed your immune system kicks into overdrive.  The next thing you know, your nose is congested and you’re coughing.

Colds or Allergies: 5 Ways to Tell

While a stuffed up or runny nose and sneezing are the main symptoms of a cold or allergies, the following five symptoms can help to determine which it really is.

1. Sore Throat

Sore throats are common with colds.  Often, it may start as a sore throat before your nose ever starts to run.

This is definitely the case with me.  Generally, I get a sore throat about 24 hours before my nose starts to run.

In contrast, sore throats rarely happen with allergies.  Thus, if you have a sore throat then chances are that it is a cold.

2. Itchy Eyes

Itchy eyes generally do not occur with colds.  Hence, if your eyes are itchy then it is probably an allergic reaction.

3. Cough

While a cough can occur with a cold or allergies, it is more common with colds.  Sometimes, these coughs may persist for weeks even after your cold symptoms have resolved.

4. Duration of Symptoms

Most colds last 3 to 10 days.  In contrast, allergies may persist for weeks or months.  Thus, if your stuffed up nose isn’t going away, then chances are that you have allergies.

5. Time of the Year

If your symptoms always seem to happen at the same time every year, then you are probably suffering from seasonal allergies.  In contrast, colds are more random.  Colds tend to occur when your body is run down and you have been exposed to other people with colds.

This is definitely the case with me.  Nearly every cold I have had in the last 10 years can be traced back to a poor night of sleep either from traveling or being up all night on call.

How do you treat a cold?

For the common cold, getting enough sleep is paramount for your body to fight off the virus.  In addition, studies show that vitamin C, zinc, and probiotics may also help you to recover more quickly.

With colds, prevention is key.  The best ways to prevent colds are to get plenty of sleep, manage stress, wash your hands regularly, and minimize exposure to people with colds.

For example, studies show that if you are not getting enough sleep, you are three times more likely to get a cold.  Likewise, reducing stress, through meditation, can cut your cold risk in half.

How do you treat allergies?

With allergies it is important to identify your triggers.  When attacks do occur, traditional treatment includes over-the-counter antihistamines, decongestants, or nasal steroids.

An even better treatment strategy is to reprogram your immune system not to react in the first place.  For example, some studies suggest that probiotics may help to retrain your immune system.

If allergies are making your life miserable, you can take hope from the people living in Crete.  As you may know, Crete is a small Greek island in the Mediterranean that is also the legendary birthplace of Zeus.

What is most remarkable is that people living in Crete rarely suffer from allergies.  As researchers have studied this phenomenon, they have concluded it is the traditional Mediterranean diet that protects them from allergies.

As most readers know, the traditional Mediterranean diet is not an all you can eat pizza and pasta diet.  Rather, the traditional Mediterranean diet is mostly fruits, vegetables, legumes, fish, and olive oil.

Complications of a Cold or Allergies

If things don’t quickly improve, get your healthcare provider involved.  Both a cold or allergies can progress to asthma, ear infections, or a sinus infection.

In rare cases, colds can even weaken your body to the point where a heart attack could occur.  For example, studies show that 14% of all heart attack deaths originate from an upper respiratory tract infection.  I also see viral infections triggering other heart problems in my practice like atrial fibrillation.

Take Home Message

The take away message is that a cold or allergies can usually be diagnosed based on your symptoms.  Once you know what it is, then you can get the treatment you need and everything you don’t need.

Fortunately, a healthy dose of “lifestyle medicine” can prevent both conditions from ever happening.  Lifestyle medicine includes eating real food, being physically active, connecting with others in a meaningful way, embracing stress, and getting restorative sleep at night.

Do you suffer from a cold or allergies?  What has worked for you?

Please leave your thoughts and suggestions below.  I’ll do my best to answer every question.

Lastly, if you have not yet signed up for my free weekly newsletter and podcast, now is the time.  Please follow these links to my newsletter and podcast.

Subscribe to Dr. Day's Weekly Newsletter
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Disclaimer Policy: This website is intended to give general information and does not provide medical advice. This website does not create a doctor-patient relationship between you and Dr. John Day. If you have a medical problem, immediately contact your healthcare provider. Information on this website is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Dr. John Day is not responsible for any losses, damages or claims that may result from your medical decisions.

  1. Just wanted to let you know that meds may cause problems. Took a partial dose of antihistamine for allergies and then had my first episode of afib in 15 yrs.