How to Distinguish Seasonal Allergies From a Cold

Posted August 3, 2023 by in Health + Fitness

As spring brings sudden temperature fluctuations and weather changes, numerous people experience cold symptoms, such as nasal congestion, sore throat, sneezing, and coughing. However, these signs don’t always indicate viral infection. In some cases, it might be an allergy. So, how can you know for sure? Let’s delve into the ways to differentiate between a cold and an allergy and understand the reasons behind the similarity in symptoms.

The Similarity of Allergy and Cold Symptoms

Allergies occur when the immune system perceives ordinary substances as dangerous and tries to defend the body against them. To do this, various chemicals are released, in particular, histamine. The same substance is also released in response to viruses that cause colds. That’s why some symptoms of a cold and an allergic reaction are similar: runny nose, sneezing, and conjunctivitis. 

In some cases, even the treatments may be the same. For example, Dimetapp alleviates allergy and cold symptoms equally effectively.

Diagnostic Factors

Accurate diagnosis is crucial for proper treatment and prevention, especially considering that colds are contagious, unlike allergies, and can be transmitted through contact. 

When trying to determine whether it’s an allergy or a cold, consider the following factors:


Pay attention to when the symptoms started. If they appear after exposure to plant pollen, fur, or contact with animals, it might be allergic rhinitis. On the other hand, if symptoms occur after exposure to cold weather or contact with someone with a respiratory illness, it is more likely a cold.

Seasonal Patterns

Colds are common during the colder months, including mid and late autumn, winter, and early spring. Allergic rhinitis, however, often flares up during spring, summer, and early autumn, especially during the active flowering phase of certain plants. 

But remember, some allergies can be triggered by other allergens, such as household chemicals or animal hair, and might not follow seasonal patterns.

Duration of Symptoms

A cold typically lasts about 1-2 weeks with proper treatment, while allergies can persist for several months. If symptoms persist despite medication, there may be a misdiagnosis and other treatments are required.

Intensity and Manifestation

Allergic rhinitis tends to cause a more intense runny nose, accompanied by watery eyes, sneezing, itching, and nasal congestion that may persist until antihistamine medication is taken. Colds, however, develop more gradually, with symptoms occurring in sequence and changing over time.

In addition, allergies often produce clear and watery nasal secretions, while colds can be characterised by yellow or greenish mucus with a thicker consistency.

Hyperthermia (Fever)

Colds frequently induce a mild fever, but allergies typically do not cause a rise in body temperature unless there are concurrent inflammatory processes.

Other Accompanying Symptoms

Allergies may be distinguished by severe eye itching, tearing, and redness of the eye’s mucous membranes, which are uncommon in colds. On the other hand, colds may be accompanied by sore throat, headache, body aches, and weakness, symptoms not observed during seasonal allergies.

Treatment Differences

Although treatment for colds and allergies is similar in alleviating symptoms and shortening their duration, there are significant distinctions in approach.

For allergies, identifying and eliminating triggers is essential. If exposure to allergens like pollen is unavoidable, at least reducing time spent outdoors can help. Antihistamines are commonly used to manage inflammation of the mucous membranes caused by allergies.

Cold management focuses on reducing symptoms and alleviating intoxication. Adequate hydration is essential, and if necessary, antiviral or antibacterial drugs may be prescribed. Mucolytics and antitussives are used for cough relief, and antipyretics can help reduce fever.

Risk Factors

Understanding the risk factors for allergies and colds can help you take proactive steps to minimise their impact on health and well-being. 

Risk Factors for Allergies

  • Family History. Hereditary predisposition significantly increases the likelihood of developing allergies. If one or both parents have allergies, their children have a higher risk of developing similar allergic conditions.
  • Environmental exposure. Prolonged exposure to certain allergens, such as pollen, dust mites, pet dander, mould spores, and some chemicals, can sensitise the immune system and lead to the development of allergies.
  • Age. Allergies can develop at any age, but they often begin during childhood or early adulthood. However, some individuals may experience new-onset allergies later in life.
  • Previous allergic reactions. Having experienced an allergic reaction in the past can be an indicator of potential allergies to specific substances.

Risk Factors for Frequent Colds

  • Weakened immune system. Individuals with compromised immune systems due to chronic illnesses, immune disorders, or specific medications may experience more frequent colds.
  • Exposure to viral infections. Close contact with infected individuals or contaminated surfaces increases the risk of contracting viral infections responsible for causing colds.
  • Seasonal variations. Colds are more common during colder months when most people spend more time inside in close proximity to others.

Prevention Strategies

To reduce the risk of allergies and frequent colds, consider implementing the following preventive measures.

Practise Good Hygiene

  • Wash your hands regularly with soap and water, especially after touching public surfaces, before eating, and after sneezing or coughing.
  • Keep your hands away from your eyes, nose, and mouth to prevent the transmission of viruses and allergens.

Maintain a Clean Living Environment

  • Regularly clean and dust your home, particularly bedding, carpets, and upholstery, to minimise exposure to dust mites and allergens.
  • Use air purifiers with HEPA filters to eliminate airborne particles and allergens from indoor air.

Manage Allergen Exposure

  • Keep windows closed during high pollen seasons, especially on windy days.
  • Regularly bathe your pets and keep them out of your bedroom to reduce exposure to pet dander.
  • Minimise outdoor activities during peak pollen times, and wear sunglasses to keep your eyes protected.

Strengthen the Immune System

  • Maintain a balanced diet rich in vitamins and nutrients to support immune function.
  • Engage in regular physical activity and exercise to increase immunity and promote overall health.

Stay Informed and Prepared

  • Stay informed about pollen forecasts and allergen levels in your area, and plan outdoor activities accordingly.
  • Have over-the-counter cold and allergy medications on hand for prompt symptom relief when needed.

Avoid Smoking and Secondhand Smoke

  • Smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke can exacerbate respiratory symptoms and increase infection risk.
  • A healthier lifestyle can decrease your chances of getting allergies and colds, improving your overall quality of life. 
sick woman on couch

Distinguishing between seasonal allergies and colds is crucial for appropriate management and prevention. By carefully considering the specific factors and symptoms discussed above, you can better understand your condition, leading to more effective treatment and faster relief. Remember, it’s always best to consult a healthcare professional for a precise diagnosis and personalised guidance on managing your condition.

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