Is It an Allergy or Just a Cold?

Medically Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on August 31, 2022

You’re sneezing and sniffling, with a stuffy nose and an itchy throat. With these kinds of symptoms, you probably have a cold. Then again, allergies can cause similar symptoms. So which one is it -- a cold or allergies?

Before you open your medicine cabinet and start to search for relief, you need to know which type of medicine you need. Colds and allergies need different types of treatment.

When you're not sure what the problem is, try these three simple tests. They'll help you figure out whether you've got an allergy problem or just a typical cold.

Cold vs. Allergies: What Are Your Symptoms?

A runny nose and sneezing won't tell you whether you have a cold or allergies, because they can be signs of either condition. But some symptoms are unique to either colds or allergies.

To help you decide, check your symptoms against this list:

Aches and painsSometimesNo
Itchy, watery eyesRarelyYes
Runny noseYesYes
Sore or scratchy throatSometimesSometimes
Stuffy noseYesYes


What's the Season?

If you're sneezing and sniffling in April and your car is coated with yellow-green pollen, you may be able to point to an obvious cause: seasonal allergies or hay fever. This is especially true if you get the same symptoms at about the same time every year.

Colds can hit at any time of year -- even during spring and summer -- although they're most common when the weather gets chilly.

How fast your symptoms occur can also determine what's ailing you. Allergies often start almost immediately after you're exposed to your trigger. For example, if you've got pollen allergies, as soon as that pollen makes its way up your nostrils, you may have symptoms.

Cold germs typically take 1 to 3 days to make you sick. If your nose is starting to twitch and you realize you were sitting next to a sneezer at the movie theater 2 nights ago, a cold may be the cause.

How Long Have Your Symptoms Lasted?

Colds generally linger for 3 days to about a week, but symptoms can last up to 2 weeks in some people. Starting to feel better after a couple of days is a sign you're probably on the mend from a cold.

If you're getting worse, your cold may become a bacterial infection. If symptoms last more than 1 to 2 weeks or get worse after about 5 days, you should see a doctor.

Allergy symptoms will last for as long as you're exposed to your trigger. So if you're allergic to cat dander, once you say goodbye to your grandmother and their prized Persian cat to return home, your sniffles should subside. If your trigger is pollen and you spend most of the spring months outdoors, you could be facing symptoms for the whole season.

Show Sources


Mandell, G. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases, 7th ed, Churchill Livingstone, 2009.

Kliegman, R. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 18th ed, Saunders Elsevier, 2007.

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: "Tips to Remember: Rhinitis."

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America: "Flu/Cold or Allergies?"

Merck Manual: "Seasonal Allergies."

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: "Flu Information: Is It a Cold or the Flu?"

Family Doctor: "Colds and the Flu," "Antihistamines: Understanding Your OTC Options," "Decongestants: OTC Relief for Congestion," "Pain Relievers: Understanding Your OTC Options."

MedicineNet: "Nonsteroidal Antiinflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)."

News release, FDA.

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