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Cold or allergies? How to tell the difference

You've got an itchy throat and runny nose that just won't quit. Or maybe you've had a headache, congestion, and sneezing for a full week. How do you know if it's a lingering cold virus or allergies?


Allergic rhinitis refers to a group of symptoms - such as runny or itchy nose, watery eyes, and sneezing - that result from inflammation of the nasal mucous membranes. A common, but inaccurate, name for this condition is hay fever. It is estimated that 40-50 million people in the United States develop allergic rhinitis during their lifetime.

Types of allergic rhinitis

Seasonal - Symptoms occur only at certain times of the year, usually spring, summer, and early fall. In most cases, people with seasonal allergic rhinitis are sensitive to pollen from trees, grasses, weeds, or airborne mold spores.

Perennial - Perennial allergic rhinitis causes symptoms all year-round. People who have this form of allergic rhinitis are generally allergic to house dust mites, animal dander, and/or mold spores.

Common allergy symptoms

A simple cold usually doesn't last much more than several days before it starts to get better and go away. However, allergy symptoms can go on for weeks or even months with little relief. Both perennial and seasonal allergic rhinitis cause the same symptoms, which may include:


  • Runny nose and nasal congestion
  • Itchy, watery eyes
  • Itchy nose, ears, or throat
  • Sinus pressure
  • Headache
  • Sneezing
  • Dark circles under your eyes - allergic shiners
  • Postnasal drip
  • Fatigue
  • Decreased sense of smell and taste
  • Chronic cough

If you have the above symptoms with no relief, contact your doctor and ask about allergy testing. Your doctor can tell you which medication is best for your type of allergies and recommend lifestyle changes if needed. 

Signs it's a cold

With a cold, nasal secretions are often thick and discolored - with allergies, they are typically clear and watery. A fever is a sign of a possible viral or bacterial infection, not allergies. If you are suffering from thick nasal secretions and/or a fever that doesn't improve within a week, it could be a sign of something more serious than the common cold, and doctor's visit is needed.

Whether you think you have a virus or allergies, talk to your doctor about your symptoms and learn what you need to do to improve your health. Your family medicine doctor is trained to look at your entire health history, current symptoms and lifestyle, and monitor your health needs throughout your life. 


TOPICS: Family medicine