How to tell the difference between a cold and allergies

Coughing, sneezing and congestion are all usually signs of a cold. Open and shut case, right? But before you wag your finger at the virus, consider this: Allergies could also be the culprit for those irritating symptoms.

Cold and flu season can overlap with allergy season. While pollen is notorious for causing allergies to act up in the spring, ragweed and mold spores can trigger symptoms in the fall. So is it possible to tell the difference between your average allergies and a full-blown cold?

All signs point to yes, and that’s a good thing. Being able to tell the difference between a cold and allergies is important. It means you’ll be able to find the right treatments and begin to feel better quicker. So we asked medical experts their best tricks for discerning between cold and allergy symptoms, as well as some ways to speed up the recovery period. Here’s what they have to say.

Blow Your Nose

One easy way to tell the difference between a cold and the flu? Look at your mucus color. If you’ve got a cold, you’ll have slightly discolored yellow or green mucus, explains Helena Azzi, an Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner and allergist at Advanced Allergy, Asthma and Sinus Care in South Florida. Allergies, meanwhile, cause clear and watery nasal discharge.

Check Your Eyes

Those suffering from allergies are more prone to red, itchy, watery and swollen eyes, says Azzi.

Other Cold Symptoms

Some symptoms that are more specific to colds include headaches, sore throats, muscle aches and fevers, says Samuel Malloy, medical director at Dr. Felix, an online doctor and pharmacy. And sometimes, cold sufferers experience a feeling of pressure in their ears and face.

Also, colds tend to last a few days to a couple weeks. If your sniffles are sticking around, however, it’s more likely you’re grappling with allergies.

“I always tell my patients to track their ‘colds,’” says Tim Mynes, D.O. and Area Medical Director, MedExpress. “If they notice that they typically develop a cold this time every year, they may actually have allergies.”


At-Home Treatments

To combat your cold, drink plenty of fluids and rest up, advises Louis Guida, MD, a pediatric and pulmonology expert at Catholic Health Services’ Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center and St. Charles Hospital in New York. He also recommends trying aspirin, decongestants, acetaminophen or ibuprofen for treatment.

For natural cold relief, Trevor Cates, ND, suggests using a Neti Pot to relieve congestion. Additional home remedies she recommends include elderberry syrup and ginger lemon honey tea, both of which can help soothe sore throats. Also, Vitamin C is good for beating colds and can be found in foods like broccoli, citrus and strawberries.

If you have allergies, on the other hand, direct your attention to antihistamines, nasal steroids and decongestants, says Guida. On top of that, avoid allergens like pollen house dust, mold and pet dander.

Allergy sufferers should also try using a sinus irrigation, suggests Dr. Gustavo Ferrer, M.D., the author of “Cough Cures.” He explains that this will rinse the sinuses of allergens and decrease symptoms. Saline containing the sugar alcohol xylitol, such as Xlear Nasal Spray, helps pull extra moisture out of swollen tissues, thinning the mucus.

Cates recommends changing your pillowcase every evening if you have allergies and washing your hair more frequently so as to remove allergens. She says it’s also a good idea to have an air purification system at home, especially in your bedroom. On top of that, you should change the air filters in your central air system every one or two months.


When Should You Go To The Doctor?

For the most part, you should be able to determine on your own whether you’ve got a pesky cold or allergies.

But a good rule of thumb? If your symptoms worsen or continue for more than 10 days, see your doctor, says Cates.

Also, if you get more than one or two colds in a year and your symptoms linger over time, you may have allergies, Azzi says. An allergist can determine if you’re a candidate for allergy skin testing after discussing your history and performing a physical exam.

While allergies can be a bit more of a wild card than a cold, you can still boost your immune system to shield yourself from the cold and flu. Here are some secrets of people who never get sick.