A Cold or Allergies: Which Is It?

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A Cold or Allergies: Which Is It?

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 about what's going on.

Ask yourself these questions to help figure out if your child could have allergies or a cold:

  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 conditions (for example, when leaves start to fall in autumn or plants start to flower in spring). Allergy symptoms like sneezing, congestion, or a runny nose are the body's response to breathing in airborne allergens (like plant pollen or mold spores).

    Colds, on the other hand, are caused by viruses that can turn up in any environment, at any time of year, but are most common in winter months.
  2. Did symptoms come on suddenly? If yes, it could be allergies. Another sign 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 usually 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 a fever? If yes, it could be a cold. Allergy symptoms are never accompanied by a fever, while colds sometimes are.
  5. Is there yellow/greenish nasal discharge? If yes, it could be a cold. With an allergy, your son's runny nose would have a thin, clear discharge rather than the thick yellow or greenish discharge that can come with a cold.

If you think that your son has an allergy, talk to his doctor. Exposure to animals, smoke, pollen, dust, foods, soaps, and mold are just a few of the things that can cause allergies. So try to note anything new that he's been exposed to. Identifying and removing the cause can help prevent allergy symptoms.

Often the only way to know exactly what someone is allergic to is with an allergy test. This, if recommended for your son, would be done in an pediatric allergist's office. The testing can be done 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(s) and, perhaps, using an over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription allergy medicine to relieve symptoms.

And if it looks like your son has a cold, check with his doctor before giving him OTC cold medicines. There is little proof that they work, while serious side effects are a risk, especially in younger kids. You can give acetaminophen or ibuprofen to relieve fever or pain. The doctor may recommend running a cool-mist humidifier or vaporizer at night to help moisten the air. Also, using saline (saltwater) nose spray or drops can help loosen mucus for both allergies and colds.

Reviewed by: Rupal Christine Gupta, MD
Date reviewed: July 2014

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