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Allergies or a Cold?

How to Determine if You Have a Cold or Allergies

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Updated April 10, 2014

Allergies or a Cold?

Sneezing can be a sign of allergies or a cold.

Sean Justice/Getty Images

Allergies and colds are often confused. They have similar symptoms and - if you aren't plagued by chronic seasonal allergies - can be difficult to differentiate.

What are the Symptoms of Allergies?

Different people have different reactions to allergens. The most common symptoms of seasonal allergies are:

Some people may experience more severe allergic reactions which can include hives (red itchy rash) and difficulty breathing.

What Causes Allergies?

Many factors contribute to allergies. Most are caused by environmental factors such as pollen, dust, mold, pet dander, smoke and pollution. Other people are allergic to foods and medications, which may cause more severe reactions than environmental allergens.

Can I Develop Allergies as an Adult?

Yes. Even if you have never had allergies, you can develop them as an adult. Many people find that when they move to a new area, they will develop allergies. It's usually related to different pollens or other allergens in the air in the new area. When your immune system is exposed to an allergen for the first time, you may not have a reaction. After that initial exposure, your body may begin to produce histamines when you encounter the allergen again. These histamines are what cause the symptoms of allergies.

Typically, adults will develop allergies to environmental allergens, but it is much less common to develop allergies to foods or medications in adulthood. This is because most people have had at least two exposures to foods and medications that commonly cause allergic reactions by the time they reach adulthood.

How Can I Tell if I Have Seasonal Allergies or a Cold?

A cold will usually last two weeks or less. They can last longer, but typically clear up within two weeks. Seasonal allergies last until the allergen that you are reacting to is gone or you are no longer exposed to it.

Cold symptoms are also slightly different than allergy symptoms. They include:

  • Runny nose - may be clear, green, yellow or white
  • Sneezing
  • Cough
  • Headache
  • Congestion

Want to know more about the Common Cold?

What Can I Do if I Think I Have Seasonal Allergies?

If you think you may have allergies, or aren't sure, you should see your healthcare provider. They can determine whether your symptoms are caused by a virus (such as the common cold) or by allergies. They can also recommend medications or give you a prescription if you do have allergies. Some common allergy medications are Benadryl, Zyrtec, Allegra, and Claritin. They are all available over the counter and in generic forms. For people with more severe reactions or who do not respond to these medications, a visit to an allergist may be necessary. Allergists will conduct tests to determine the exact causes of the allergies and may prescribe allergy shots to alleviate symptoms.

Want to know more about allergy medications?

Sources:

"Allergic Rhinitis." The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. 26 Mar 2007.

"Allergies and Hay Fever." AUG 2005. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 26 Mar 2007.

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