A Cold or Allergies: Which Is It?

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Parents

My son has been sneezing for the past few weeks and blows his nose constantly. How can I tell if he has allergies or just a lingering cold?
Michelle

Seasonal allergies and the common cold can be so much alike that it's sometimes hard to tell the two apart. But look closely and you can find clues as to what's going on.

Ask yourself these questions to sleuth out whether or not your child has allergies:

  1. Have the seasons changed? If yes, it could be allergies. Seasonal allergies come at the same time every year and around the same set of circumstances, like when leaves start to fall or plants start to flower. Allergy symptoms like sneezing, congestion, or a runny nose are the body's response to breathing in allergens (like plant pollen or mold spores) that are released into the air. Colds, on the other hand, are caused by viruses that can turn up in any environment, during any time of year, but are more common in winter months.
  2. Did symptoms come on suddenly? If yes, it could be allergies. Another indicator that you might be dealing with seasonal allergies is if symptoms come on suddenly and last a long time. Cold symptoms tend to come on more gradually and typically go away within 7 to 10 days, but allergies last as long as someone is exposed to an allergen, which can be for weeks or months. 
  3. Does your son have itchy, watery eyes? If yes, it could be allergies. Many kids with allergies get this symptom when an allergen causes an inflammation of the conjunctiva, a clear membrane that covers the inner eyelids and eyeball.
  4. Is there an absence of fever and no yellow/greenish nasal discharge? If yes, it could be allergies. Allergy symptoms are never accompanied by a fever, while colds sometimes are. And with an allergy, your son's runny nose will have a thin, clear discharge, rather than the thick yellow or greenish discharge that can come with a cold.

If you suspect your son has an allergy, the only way to tell exactly what he's allergic to is to get an allergy test. This test can be performed on the skin (where an allergen is placed under the skin to check the body's response) or through a blood test. 

If your son does have allergies, the doctor will recommend reducing exposure to the allergen and might also suggest an over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription allergy medication to relieve symptoms. 

And if you determine that your son has a cold, check with the doctor before giving him OTC cold medicines. There is little-to-no evidence that they work and serious side effects are a risk, especially in younger children. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be given to relieve fever or pain. 

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: April 2011

Have a question? Email us.

Although we can't reply personally, you may see your question posted to this page in the future. If you're looking for medical advice, a diagnosis, or treatment, consult your doctor or other qualified medical professional. If this is an emergency, contact emergency services in your area.



Related Resources

OrganizationAmerican Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology offers up-to-date information and a find-an-allergist search tool.
OrganizationAmerican College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology The ACAAI is an organization of allergists-immunologists and health professionals dedicated to quality patient care. Contact them at: American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology
85 W. Algonquin Road
Suite 550 Arlington Heights, IL 60005
(800) 842-7777
OrganizationAmerican Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) The AAP is committed to the health and well-being of infants, adolescents, and young adults. The website offers news articles and tips on health for families.
OrganizationAmerican Academy of Family Physicians This site, operated by the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), provides information on family physicians and health care, a directory of family physicians, and resources on health conditions.


Related Articles

Allergy Shots Many kids battle allergies year-round, and some can't control their symptoms with medications. For them, allergy shots (or allergen immunotherapy) can be beneficial.
All About Allergies Up to 50 million Americans, including millions of kids, have an allergy. Find out how allergies are diagnosed and how to keep them under control.
Can Kids Get Allergies All Year? Find out what the experts have to say.
Is It a Cold or the Flu? Your child is sent home from school with a sore throat, cough, and high fever - could it be the flu that's been going around? Or is it just a common cold? Find out here!
Seasonal Allergies (Hay Fever) At various times of the year, pollen and mold spores trigger the cold-like symptoms associated with seasonal allergies. Most kids find relief through reduced exposure to allergens or with medications.
Common Cold With kids getting up to eight colds a year, this contagious viral infection is the most common infectious disease in the United States and the top reason kids visit the doctor and miss school.




Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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