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How to Tell if You've Got Allergies or a Cold

Half of Americans misdiagnose themselves. Here's how to get it right.

When you start sniffling and your throat starts itching, it’s hard to tell whether you’ve got a cold or allergies. Actually, it’s damn near impossible. According to research from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation, we only get it right about half the time; 51 percent of Americans misdiagnose themselves with allergies when there’s something else brewing in their immune system. 

But a 50/50 shot at correctly guessing your ailment doesn’t really cut it. So we asked Joon Park, MD, an allergist and immunologist at ENT & Allergy Associates to help us set colds and allergies apart—what their symptoms look like, what their patterns, and more—so you can get back to your normal self STAT.  

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First and foremost: What Causes Each? 

“Common colds are caused by viruses, and therefore, represent an infectious process, whereas allergies are caused by our immune system's response to various environmental allergens, such as pollen, animal hair/dander, mold, and dust mites,” Park says. 

Their roots and mechanisms are fairly straight forward—nothing shocking here. (The differences in their symptoms are the confusing bit, and we’ll get to that next.) But considering the time of year can help you discern one from the other, too. The spring and fall—when seasons are transitioning—are generally when allergies are at their worst. 

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Allergy or Cold Conundrum: Differentiating the Two

“While certain symptoms of a cold overlap with allergies, such as a runny or stuffy nose, and sneezing, colds are distinctively accompanied by other general symptoms, such as low-grade fever, malaise, fatigue, muscle aches/pains, and decreased appetite.” You may also notice your runny nose becoming a not-so-healthy snotty nose—the discharge becoming thicker and yellow or green in color, according to the Mayo Clinic. Also, the onset of cold symptoms are generally more severe than allergies, Park says, and you’ll probably be able to trace back, or think of a friend or family member who gave you the cold.

Note: You should see a doctor if you begin to suffer significant sinus pain, severely swollen glands, and a fever of 103 degrees F (or higher) accompanied by sweating and chills. 

“On the other hand, symptoms of allergies tend to last longer and have a recurrent pattern, correlating well with exposure to certain triggers (dust mites, mold, animal hair, to name a few),” Park says. Patterns are key when differentiating colds from allergies. If you have sudden sneeze fits and an itchy throat the same time every year, then odds are you’re suffering from allergies. 

“Additionally, symptoms of allergies commonly include prominent itching in the nose, throat, and eyes, which tend to respond well to oral antihistamines,” Park adds. And this isn’t consistent with colds. 

If you want to prevent the season’s coughs, sneezes, and fevers, check out these 10 ways to win the war against colds and the flu. If you happen to catch a bug, don't sweat it; we've got 13 cold and flu remedies that actually work. And if you happen to fall victim to allergies, see the 10 allergy remedies that won't make you drowsy

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