Rhonda Patt

Is it a cold or allergies?

Symptoms for both colds and allergies tend to overlap.
Symptoms for both colds and allergies tend to overlap. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Now that spring is here, I have a hard time distinguishing between cold symptoms and allergies. Is there any easy way to discern between the two? I don’t want to give my child allergy medication for a simple cold.

Trying to distinguish between a cold and allergies is often difficult because many of the symptoms overlap. However, there are subtle differences that can help you sort this out.

Runny nose: Colds will typically begin with a clear runny nose in the first one to two days but then progress to more yellow, milky, or green mucous until the cold resolves. Allergies are more characteristic for clear, watery nasal secretions.

Cough: Allergies and colds may cause a cough that is worse at night. Coughs associated with allergies tend to be dry whereas colds create more of a wet cough.

Sneezing: Sneezing can be associated with allergies or colds, but sneezing tends to be more productive with colds.

Red eyes: Red irritated itchy eyes are a common finding with allergies. This can be confused with viral conjunctivitis, or “pink-eye”, that is often associated with viral infections or colds. Allergies cause both eyes to be symmetrically red while viral infections usually start in one eye.

If the runny nose is associated with fever, body aches, or sore throat, then it is more likely to be the result of a viral cold. Allergies often have a strong component of itching- itchy nose, itchy watery eyes, dry itchy skin. Also, a strong family history of allergies makes allergies more likely.