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Sharp Health News

Is it a cold or allergies?

Nov. 7, 2016

Is it a cold or allergies?

Your throat is scratchy, your nose is runny and your eyes are watering. Before you call in sick to school or work you need to know — is it a cold or allergies?

According to Dr. Brian Barmettler, a board-certified internal medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, “Seasonal allergies and colds share some similar symptoms such as runny nose, coughing and sneezing, so it may be difficult to tell the two apart.”

Colds are a collection of various symptoms, which can include nasal congestion and discharge, sore throat, sneezing, low-grade fever, cough, fatigue and mild headache. “Colds are caused by viruses that can be passed from person to person,” Dr. Barmettler explains.

Allergies are caused by substances in the environment. In certain individuals, these substances cause the body to produce an immune response. “The symptoms of this response include episodes of itchy eyes, sneezing, running nose, cough and mild fatigue. Allergies are not contagious,” Dr. Barmettler says.

5 ways to tell the difference between a cold and allergies

DurationUsually last a few days to a couple of weeksGenerally last longer than colds — weeks to months
When it happensThroughout the year; however, colds tend to be more common in winter monthsThroughout the year
SymptomsNasal congestion and discharge, sore throat, sneezing, low-grade fever, cough, fatigue and mild headacheItchy eyes, sneezing, runny nose, cough and mild fatigue
EnvironmentIf a lot of people are ill at home or at work, it would more likely be a coldEnvironmental changes, such as a home remodel, a new pet, changes in home or work areas, and surrounding trees or plant material (especially if in bloom) may create allergies 
TreatmentMost colds require no treatment

Moderate cold symptoms (headache, achiness and fever) can be treated with over-the-counter pain medications — acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and naproxen

A combination antihistamine and decongestant can also be helpful in relieving congestion
Avoidance is the cornerstone of treatment if the cause of the allergy is known

An over-the-counter, non-drowsy antihistamine, such as loratadine or cetirizine, is generally sufficient to treat mild or occasional symptoms of allergies

For more persistent symptoms, try a glucocorticoid nasal spray like fluticasone; some glucocorticoid nasal sprays can be purchased over the counter

Be aware that some of the above mentioned drugs may not be suitable for treating small children. 

“Most people with allergies will respond well to simple treatments, including over-the-counter medications,” Dr. Barmettler says. “The majority of people with allergies do not require allergy testing.”

“Washing your hands often is the best way to prevent getting or spreading a cold,” Dr. Barmettler adds. “Most people with a cold are going to do well and need no or little treatment. Antibiotics do not help colds, and they could harm you.”

For the news media: To talk with a Sharp doctor about colds or allergies for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at

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