You’re sneezing and sniffling, with a stuffy nose and an itchy throat. That probably means a cold. Then again, allergies can cause similar symptoms. So which one is it? Knowing the difference can help you with treatment.
What’s the Difference?
Colds and allergies have some symptoms in common, but have different causes. Common colds are caused by many types of viruses. Seasonal allergies are immune system responses to allergens like tree or grass pollens.
But the most important difference is that colds usually don't last more than 14 days. And if you have a low-grade fever too, you probably have a cold. Find yourself sneezing every spring or fall? Those are common times for allergies. Colds usually show up in the late fall and winter.
Facts About the Common Cold
Although many types of viruses can cause a cold, the rhinovirus is the most common culprit.
The virus enters your body through your mouth, eyes or nose. It can spread through droplets in the air when someone who is sick coughs or sneezes.
The virus also spreads by hand-to-hand contact with someone who has a cold or by sharing objects like utensils, towels, toys or telephones. If you touch your eyes, nose or mouth after such contact or exposure, you're likely to catch a cold.
Top Tips for Preventing a Cold
- Wash your hands often. Use soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
Wash for 20 seconds.
- Don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.
- Stay away from people who are sick and don’t share objects with them.
Facts About Allergies
An allergy starts when your immune system mistakes a normally harmless substance for a dangerous invader. Your immune system's reaction can inflame your skin, sinuses, airways or digestive system.
- At least 1 in 5 Americans has an allergy. Effects can range from minor irritation to a life-threatening emergency.
- Allergies run in families. If your parents have allergies, you probably will, too.
- The more often you come into contact with the allergen (a substance that causes an allergic reaction), and the earlier in life this happens, the more likely you’ll be allergic.
Preventing Allergic Reactions
Allergies in general can’t be prevented. But you can prevent allergic reactions. Once you know what you’re allergic to, you can avoid contact with the allergen. These tips can help:
- Stay in an air-conditioned environment during peak hay-fever season.
- Avoid any foods that trigger a reaction.
- Eliminate dust mites and animal dander from your home.
Compare symptoms of colds and allergies at WebMD.com.