Suffering from a cold or allergies?

cold or allergies

Suffering from a cold or allergies?

Colds and allergies can share many of the same symptoms. But they are very different conditions with different causes—and each require different treatment.

If symptoms develop suddenly, and occur at about the same time every year, it’s probably an allergy. Allergies are caused by your body mistaking harmless substances—mould, pet hair, dust, and pollen—for germs, and attacking them.1 Allergies are the result of a chain reaction that starts in the immune system. The immune system acts like a perimeter fence around your body and reacts to anything it classes as an intruder.

If you have an allergy to pollen for example, your immune system sees the pollen as an invader or an ‘allergen’ and reacts by producing antibodies. These antibodies then travel to cells that release chemicals, causing an allergic reaction. This reaction can cause symptoms such as nasal passage swelling, a runny nose, coughing or sneezing.1,2

What’s more, the body remembers these ‘intruders’ and reacts whenever it encounters them. The good news is that allergies are not contagious.

Unlike an allergy, the common cold is caused by a virus,. More often than not, this is due to a rhinovirus,3 of which there are over 100 varieties. Cold viruses are with us year-round, regardless of climate or weather and colds can be spread from person to person by direct or indirect contact.3

Cold vs Allergy Checklist:

  • Stuffy/runny nose, sneezing – usually with both cold and allergy
  • Cough, sore throat – usually cold; sometimes allergy
  • Fatigue – sometimes cold or allergy
  • General aches/pains – sometimes cold; never allergy
  • Fever – rarely cold; never allergy
  • Itchy eyes – rarely cold; usually allergy

The fact that colds and allergies share many of the same symptoms often makes it difficult even for doctors to figure out which one a patient has. The most telling difference between colds and allergies may be duration; a cold rarely lasts longer than 14 days.3 It is possible however, to catch a ‘new’ cold – and a different virus entirely – while still having symptoms from the previous cold.5

What about treatment?

Common cold treatments include pain relievers and over-the-counter cold remedies, such as decongestants.3,6 You can get more information about treatments from your doctor or pharmacist.

Cold sufferers can often benefit from humidified air, plenty of liquids6 and saline nasal drops or spray, which thin secretions and promote clearer breathing. Chicken soup may also help; the hot liquid and salt helps fight the infection, and can temporarily clear blocked nasal passages.6

The best way to prevent allergic reactions is to limit the exposure to allergens. Naturally, this can be easier said than done. Alternative allergy treatments can include over-the-counter or prescription medications, such as antihistamines, nasal steroid sprays and decongestants.7Many of these work by blocking the body’s reactions to ‘intruders’. As always, if you have questions seek advice from a doctor or pharmacist.

There are allergy tests available to determine exactly what the allergen trigger is for each person. If allergies are multiple and severe, a specialist such as a certified allergist may perform a series of allergen tests.


  1. US Medline Plus. Allergies. Available at
  2. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Tips to remember: indoor allergens. Available at: Accessed August 2010.
  3. US National Institutes for Health. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Common Cold. Available at
  4. Cold or Allergy—Which Is It? By James Stekelberg, M.D., Mayo Clinic. Available at. Accessed August 2010
  5. Cardiff University Common Cold Centre. Available at
  6. US Medline Plus. Common Cold. Available at Accessed August 2010.
  7. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Tips to remember: Asthma and Allergy Treatments. Available at, Accessed August 2010.