What's the Difference Between a Cold and Allergies?

What's the Difference Between a Cold and Allergies?

Is it the common cold, or do you have allergies? Sometimes it’s hard to tell because the two may cause similar symptoms. But they’re really two different beasts, and proper treatment depends on knowing which you have.

At Oasis Ear, Nose, and Throat in Surprise, Arizona, board-certified otolaryngologists Dr. James Osborne and Dr. Bryan Smedley deal with all things allergy-related, but as many of our patients are understandably confused about whether their symptoms come from allergies or the common cold, they’ve put together this guide so you can be informed.

What causes allergies?

Allergies are your body’s immune system gone into overdrive, responding to an innocuous substance with a full-scale assault. Some of the most common allergens (allergy triggers) are pollen, dust mites, furry pets, mold, and fungi.

In response to the presence of an allergen, the body releases compounds to fight what it views as a harmful substance. One of these compounds is histamine, which is what causes many common allergy symptoms. Allergies aren’t contagious, and they last as long as you’re in contact with the allergen.

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, about 50 million people in the United States alone deal with allergies of one sort or another.

What causes colds?

Colds are an infectious illness caused by one of more than 200 different viruses.They’re very common — the average adult gets about two colds a year, and children even more — and they’re contagious. You can contract a cold directly from an infected person or from touching surfaces where a sick person has coughed or sneezed and left droplets. Most colds peter out in 7-10 days.

Symptoms of allergies and colds

Allergies and colds have similar, but not identical, symptoms. Allergy symptoms include:

Cold symptoms include:

And because colds are caused by a viral infection, some people may develop complications, such as:

It’s important to note that, with allergies, symptoms often appear during a particular season or come and go based on whether the person’s immediate environment contains allergens or not. Sudden symptoms around a known allergen is a good indication you have allergies, not a cold.

Other key differences include:

Treatment is also different between the two. Since colds have a viral origin, antibiotics are useless. Most treatment is aimed at palliative care, keeping yourself comfortable until the virus runs its course.

Allergies have no cure, but there are definite treatments. At Oasis Ear, Nose, and Throat, our goal is to help you avoid reactions and manage your symptoms. The best way to do both is to avoid your allergen altogether (e.g., don’t eat peanuts if you have a peanut allergy). However, other allergens, like pollen, are beyond your control. As a result, after your evaluation and the identification of your allergen, we might recommend:

Allergy medications

Some medications you take regularly, as a preventive measure, and some you take to abort an attack. They may come as an oral tablet, a nasal spray, or some other form.


When avoidance and medications aren’t effective, our team may recommend immunotherapy. You expose yourself to regular but tiny doses of the allergen to slowly build up your tolerance.

If you’re having difficulty distinguishing between the symptoms of an allergy and a cold, it’s best to make an appointment at Oasis Ear, Nose, and Throat for an evaluation and proper treatment. Give our office a call at 623-207-7560, or book online with us today.

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