Allergies or a Cold: The Final, Definitive Answer

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Allergies or a Cold: The Final, Definitive Answer
Photo: ImaxTree

So you feel like crap right now, huh? You’ve spent the last 15 minutes Googling your symptoms (uh, bad idea—stop) and reading every article and random forum in the vain hope of figuring out whether you woke up with allergies, or, more terrifyingly, a cold. Because if you’ve got a cold, you know you’re now locked into seven days of hell, but if you’ve got allergies, there’s still hope for you.

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Annoyingly, though, the answer isn’t so simple, otherwise you’d have already found it by now. “I get this question all the time by patients, and unfortunately, there’s really no clear-cut answer, especially since allergies can strike year-round,” says Purvi Parikh, an allergist with the Allergy & Asthma Network. Thankfully, though, Parikh notes that there are still a few distinct differences between colds and allergies, so we had her break them down—we kind of begged, actually—for us to help you figure out what’s messing with your body.

clear skin1 Allergies or a Cold: The Final, Definitive Answer

Photo: ImaxTree

If you’re coughing and wheezing…

Pay attention to the type of cough and wheeze it is, says Parikh. “Generally, a cough due to allergies will feel dry and irritated, and the wheezing tends to be asthma-related, which flares during bouts of allergies.” But if you’re coughing up mucus and gunk—especially discolored mucous and gunk—and there’s a rattling of phlegm in your chest, there’s a good chance it’s a cold, she says.

If you have a fever…

Make sure it’s really a fever, first. “Anything below 100.4 degree isn’t classified as a fever, because there’s a normal variation in everyone’s body temp,” says Parikh. “But if your temperature is 100.4 or higher, you have a fever, and that’s likely indicative of a virus or a cold.”

If you’re itchy…

OK, this one should be a dead giveaway, but if itching is one of your main complaints, and you don’t have a fever or any obvious, gaping wounds, then “nine times out of ten, it’s most likely an allergy, rather than a cold,” says Parikh.

glowing skin blush1 Allergies or a Cold: The Final, Definitive Answer

Photo: ImaxTree

If you have pain or pressure…

Figure out if it’s one-sided versus two-sided. “Generally, colds and viruses stick to one side or area of the body, while allergies affect both sides,” says Parikh. “For example, if you feel pain and pressure in both ears, or itchiness and pain in both eyes, it’s most likely allergies. But if the pain, pressure, or itchiness is intense on just one side or area, then you’re likely looking at a cold or virus.”

If you have a runny nose and sore throat…

Sorry, but this one can go either way, and there’s truly no real discernible difference between the two, except for time. “Stuffy noses and post-nasal drip, whether from a cold or an allergy, can cause the same sore-throat symptoms,” says Parikh. “The only difference is that nasal symptoms due to a cold should start improving within three-to-five days, while nasal allergies can ebb and flow in intensity for weeks.”

OK, great, so you read all of this and still don’t feel like you know if you’ve got a cold or allergies, and that sucks, because you feel terrible, and why doesn’t the internet have answers, and please, somebody just fix you already! Hey, we get it—being sick is awful. Unfortunately, though, the only thing that can really fix you is time. And maybe a dose of antihistamine. “The first day is almost always too soon to tell if it’s a cold or allergies,” says Parikh, “but if you’re still looking for answers, try taking Benadryl—it will make you drowsy, so try it at night—and seeing how you feel in the morning. If you feel significantly better, you’re probably dealing with a bout of allergies and should start taking Zyrtec, Allegra, or Nasonex.” And if you don’t…then, hey, you’ve got yourself a cold, and we’re so sorry. Happy sniffles!

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