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Is it Cold or Allergy?

Advice for Healthy Living

James Romero, CNP – BreatheAmerica Albuquerque

Is it Cold or Allergy?

As you prepare for the end of winter and anticipate the springtime, do you find yourself feeling sudden changes in your body such as sneezing, stuffy or runny nose, and coughing? Do you often ask yourself, “Do I have an end of winter cold or do I have springtime allergies?”  How do you know if these symptoms come from a cold or from allergy?

Because cold and allergy symptoms are similar, knowing if you have a cold or an allergy to airborne pathogens can be difficult to determine. The best way to tell the difference between the two is by understanding how your body responds to each condition.

Nasal Symptoms

Nasal symptoms are common with both a cold and with allergy.  A runny nose associated with a cold occurs as a direct reaction to nasal congestion. The discharge is often colored or cloudy.    Nasal symptoms associated with allergies are typically sneezing and itching. These are your body’s defense mechanisms to protect the nasal cavity from pollen and other airborne allergens that may be irritating your airway.  The discharge is usually clear.


Coughing associated with a cold is caused by congestion and the body reacting to expel mucus.  Mucus is produced to protect against virus within the airway.  The common cold is caused by a virus.  Often cough may lead to soreness and shortness of breath.  Cough is not typically associated with allergy; however, you may cough if you have an itch in the back of your throat caused by food or other inhalants that irritate the lungs and/or esophagus.  This is more common in people with food allergies than people with airborne allergy.  The cough associated with allergy is a wheezing cough and does not produce mucus.


A fever is part of your body’s normal defense when fighting a virus.  The virus associated with the common cold may cause “feverish” symptoms; however, the fever is usually mild and generally resolves with supportive care.  Allergy symptoms do not typically produce a fever.  The cause of allergy is a result of a reaction to airborne allergens such as pollen, dust, pet dander, etc.   You can be confident that if you have a fever, you are likely experiencing a cold and not allergy.

Duration of Symptoms

Symptoms of the common cold have a gradual onset. It will begin as a “head cold” and will progress.  Colds usually last for 7-10 days and are treated with supportive therapies including decongestants and other over the counter remedies.  Allergy symptoms will persist for a period of one week to a few months over the course of an allergy season.  The symptoms are noticeable by the rapid onset once exposed to allergens. Treatment may include steroid nasal spray, antihistamine, eye drops, and other therapies.

There are many similarities between the common cold and allergy symptoms.  Knowing the difference between the two conditions will help you choose the appropriate treatment and therapy.   As we move into a season change, you may experience cold and allergy symptoms. Contact your healthcare provider for a consultation in order to discuss your symptoms and choose the treatment that is best for you.