Are You Experiencing Allergies or a Cold?   

Are You Experiencing Allergies or a Cold?

Woman blowing her nose on the couch not feeling well - allergies or a cold
Clinical Contributors to this story:
Kimberly Cai, M.D.
Nelson Lee, D.O.
Edward T. Mezic, M.D.

Sometimes adults can develop respiratory allergies, even if they have never had them before. Allergies develop if the immune system becomes sensitized to certain triggers, such as pollen, pet dander, dust mites or mold spores, and mounts a defense to those triggers. The symptoms you experience are signs of that defensive action.

“A runny nose and fatigue can be signs of seasonal allergies, but those symptoms could also be caused by a cold virus,” says Kimberly Cai, M.D., an internal medicine physician at Hackensack Meridian Health Medical Group. But there are some important differences between cold and allergy symptoms.

Check the list below to see if your symptoms point to an allergy or a cold:

Allergy (Hay Fever) Symptoms

  • Runny nose with thin, watery discharge
  • Itchy, red or watery eyes
  • Itchy nose, throat or roof of mouth
  • Sinus congestion
  • Post-nasal drip
  • Sneezing
  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • No fever
  • Duration: for as long as you are exposed to the allergen

Cold Symptoms

  • Runny nose with thick, white or yellow discharge
  • Sinus congestion
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • Cough
  • Body aches, mild headache
  • Low-grade fever
  • Duration: three to seven days

How to Reduce Allergy Symptoms

If you suspect allergies, there are ways to fight the symptoms.

  • Avoid allergens. It is difficult to completely avoid airborne allergens like pollen and mold spores, but keeping windows closed during the worst part of the season can help. If you are sensitive to pet dander or dust mites, frequently vacuum rugs and wash bed linens. You might also need to vacuum other fabrics like drapes and throw pillows, and use a dust-trapping cloth or tool on window blinds and hard surfaces on a regular basis.

  • Home remedies. You can relieve congestion by irrigating the sinuses with a salt-and-water solution. Use a squeeze bottle or neti pot to irrigate to push the solution into the sinus cavities and flush out pollen and mucus. “It is very important to use distilled water or tap water that has been boiled and cooled to avoid introducing bacteria and other contaminants,” says Nelson Lee, D.O., a family medicine physician at Hackensack Meridian Health Medical Group. “And check with your doctor about the proper proportion of salt to water to use.”

  • Medications. Over-the-counter antihistamines and decongestants can lessen sneezing, watery eyes and congestion. Some people find that antihistamines can make them sleepy or produce other side effects, so use them with care. “You should also check internet, TV or radio reports for the day’s expected pollen counts,” says Dr. Cai. “If the count is going to be high, you might want to take allergy medications before your symptoms start to flare up.”

Adds Dr. Lee, “If these steps don’t offer enough relief, we might be able to offer other treatments, such as corticosteroids, allergy shots or other medications.”

Some people who have seasonal allergies might also suffer from other conditions related to an over-reactive immune system, such as asthma. Edward Mezic, M.D., a pulmonologist at Hackensack Meridian Health Medical Group, describes treatments that can help lessen allergies and asthma symptoms at the same time. “Allergic asthma can be treated with immunotherapy [allergy shots] or anti-immunoglobulin E therapy. These treatments help modify the way your body responds to allergens.”

Next Steps & Resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.


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