science of us

Do I Have Seasonal Allergies or a Cold?

Photo: Debrocke/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Spring is the worst of the four seasons and I won’t hear otherwise. Spring means endless chilly rain with just a few nice, warm days thrown in to get your hopes up before dashing them. Spring is persistently bare trees without the magic of leaves or snow. Spring is hell on earth for those who are allergic to pollen, dust, ragweed, mold, or all of the above. And, to top it all off, springtime means round two of cold season. Either way, you’re going to spend a lot of time sneezing and congested and disappointed.

And because allergies and colds can feel almost identical, it can be hard to know what kind of treatment to seek, or whether it’s necessary to see a doctor. How can you tell exactly which kind of suffering you’re dealing with? We spoke with an expert to find out.

What are the symptoms of allergies versus a cold?

“Both [allergies and colds] tend to cause runny nose, sneezing, congestion and maybe some eye complaints,” says David Shih, EVP of strategy and former chief medical officer at CityMD. “You may also see some fatigue and weakness in both.” Shih says cold symptoms and allergy symptoms are most likely to mirror one another in the first few days — especially because most colds are shorter-lived than most spring allergies.

There are also certain symptoms which you can usually (but not always) consider clues as to whether you have allergies or a cold. “You never see aches, you never see fever [with allergies],” says Shih. “You don’t see too much sore throat with allergies, whereas you can see that with a cold.” Furthermore, though eye irritation can be a symptom associated with a cold, it’s far more likely to appear (usually in the form of itchiness) with allergies. Also, sorry, gross, but Shih adds that the mucus produced by allergies is more likely to be “clear and watery” than that produced by a cold, which is thicker, and sometimes yellow or green. (Sorry!!)

What causes spring allergies?

Triggers may vary, but for most people, in spring, it comes down to pollen and mold, which is why allergy-sufferers are often warned to stay indoors as much as possible on high pollen count days. Here, too, is a clue — if your symptoms seem to crop up regularly, in response to certain triggers (whether it’s pollen, or something like cat hair), you can pretty safely bet you’re experiencing allergies.

How long do allergy symptoms last?

“The typical lifespan [for a cold] is around three to ten days, and ten is more in the extreme. But let’s say three days to a week, typically, to recover on its own,” says Shih. Allergy symptoms, on the other hand, are much more persistent, and can last for weeks. So if you’re feeling congested, a little tired, and sneezy, but it’s only been a couple of days, you might give it a few more before jumping to conclusions.

What’s the best treatment for allergies?

Even if you’re still not sure whether you have a cold or allergies, Shih says it’s okay to go for an over-the-counter anti-histamine, which should relieve both sneezing and congestion. If you have a cold, the symptoms ought to go away within a few days, but if you have allergies, they may persist — even if they’re lessened by the medication. “Allergies tend not to go away unless they’re treated, or the trigger is removed,” says Shih. Removal, of course, is often easier advised than done.

Though allergies, unlike colds, aren’t contagious, it’s still important to take them seriously. “If the symptoms aren’t improving, and you’re building up a lot of congestion, that can lead to respiratory issues, sinus infections, and that can lead to asthma,” says Shih. So if your symptoms are worsening, or starting to affect your breathing, for instance, it’s probably time to make an appointment with your doctor. And for as long as you’re still in that uncertain, either/or phase, practice good hygiene: wash your hands often, sneeze into the crook of your elbow, and use tissues — especially if you’re still going to go into work.

Other than that, all you can is stay inside, mope, and wait for summer. Or, make that fall. Winter? Well. No season is safe.

Do I Have Seasonal Allergies or a Cold?