How to Tell If You Have Allergies or a Cold

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Another way to tell if you have a cold: Your symptoms don’t improve with antihistamines. “How you respond to allergy medications can be helpful,” says Chen. “If you’re sneezing and you have a runny nose, but your symptoms improve with antihistamines, then your symptoms are more likely due to allergies.

Some of the symptoms do overlap, but typically, allergies have their own tempo and time frame. “For a traditional common cold, you can expect symptoms to increase in a few days and resolve within a week or so,” explains Chen. “Depending on what you’re allergic to, that time frame can be different with allergies.

To add to the confusion, many people feel run down and sick when they have allergies. “Allergy symptoms seem to mimic cold symptoms because they are both a state of inflammation in the body, which can be very taxing,” she says.

Chen says antihistamines can be used on an as-needed basis and typically work within an hour, while steroid nasal sprays are effective at preventing and treating allergy symptoms, but you have to take them daily for a week or two to see results.

Allergies can trigger a variety of symptoms, including watery and itchy eyes, sneezing, and a runny or congested nose, according to Chen.

Cara Connors, a primary care physician at The University of Tennessee Medical Center, says a cold can cause body aches and a severe sore throat, which don’t usually occur with allergies.

For some symptoms, saline nasal sprays can be helpful: “Nasal saline sprays do not relieve inflammation in the nose, but some people find them helpful if their nose feels dry,” she says.

For example, if you’re allergic to cats, you might have acute and immediate allergy symptoms after you’ve been spending time with one — but Chen says those symptoms usually dissipate within a few hours of leaving the allergy-inducing environment.

Meng Chen, a clinical assistant professor of allergy and immunology at Stanford University School of Medicine, says she commonly hears from patients that it can be hard to tell the difference between the two, because many of the symptoms overlap.

Katherine Boling, a primary care doctor in Lutherville, Maryland, says some people get a low-grade fever of up to 101 degrees with a cold, but not allergies.

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