Woman in a scarf and long-sleeve shirt coughing and holding her chest.

Identifying Colds vs. Allergies: Knowing the Severity of Symptoms & Other Telltale Signs

You have been going about your business enjoying some lovely late-fall weather when, suddenly, you feel a tickle in your throat and cannot stop sneezing. Shortly thereafter, you begin to experience some nasal congestion and fear you may have a cold. But… do you have a cold… or is it allergies?

Trying to figure out whether you have contracted the common cold or are suffering from allergies can prove difficult for anyone to decipher. After all, cold season tends to reach its peak when allergies are also especially prevalent. And, because things like sneezing and sniffling are commonly associated with both colds and allergies, you might be confused in how to tell the difference.

We’re going to break down colds vs. allergies to better help you understand which one you might have. We’ll talk about the differences in symptoms between colds and allergies, plus why things like the color of your snot or mucus may be all you need to know if you have a cold or are dealing with allergies.

What Causes Colds vs. Allergies?

The biggest difference between colds and allergies stems from the fact that colds are caused by viruses, whereas allergies are a response your immune system has to non-infectious substances, like pollen, dust or mold.

The way your body responds to colds and allergies, however, is very similar. When you contract the common cold , the symptoms you feel are a result of your immune system fighting the virus. Likewise, your immune system will react to certain allergens and thus provoke certain symptoms. But the difference in response when it comes to colds vs. allergies lies in that the immune system mistakes these non-infectious substances for germs.

Do Allergies Cause Coughing and Sore Throat?

Allergies can sometimes cause coughing and a sore throat if you have a postnasal drip or general irritation in the throat. Certain allergens—including hay fever, dust, grass, mold and fungi—can provoke different symptomatic responses from your body.

If you have allergies, you might experience a cough dependent on the allergen. But this is a difference between cold and allergies, because a cough and sore throat are more common symptoms of the common cold. They also sound and feel different.

Allergy Cough vs. Cold Cough

The cough you may experience with seasonal allergies may stem from a tickle in your throat. It is likely to feel extremely dry and itchy. This differs from cold coughs, which are usually wet—meaning they may tend to produce phlegm or mucus—and can sound barking or hacking.

Are Allergies Contagious?

Allergies are not contagious, though certain allergies may run in your gene pool. In fact, allergies are often hereditary. It’s also possible for allergies to occasionally disappear for long periods, only to return later. You might also develop a sensitivity to an allergen over time.

This is another separator when it comes to allergies vs. colds, because the common cold (which, remember, is caused by a virus) is contagious. That’s why it’s important to know the difference between colds and allergies, especially when you have young kids and need to know whether it’s safe to send them to school.

If you do contract a cold virus, take things easy. Whether it’s washing your hands regularly, staying home when you’re sick or making sure to disinfect household items, you can do your part to help stop the spread of a cold.

Man itching both of his eyes as he experiences winter allergies.

Do I Have a Cold or Allergies? Breaking Down Cold vs. Allergy Symptoms

Sneezing and congestion got you in a bind and not sure exactly what it is you’re dealing with? Other symptoms you might be feeling can help you understand how to know the difference between allergies and a cold:

Symptom Colds Allergies
Cough Often Slight
Stuffy, Runny Nose Often Often
Sneezing Often Often
Sore Throat Often Sometimes
Itchy Eyes Rare Often
Fatigue Sometimes Sometimes
Aches and Pains Sometimes Never
Fever Sometimes Never

As you can see, we have both symptomatic overlap and some separators. The length of the symptoms is another important consideration here.

The common cold has stages, and colds are often resolved within 10-14 days, if not sooner. Conversely, allergies lack a specific timeline. You may experience symptoms like a dry cough, sneezing or stuffiness so long as you are exposed to a trigger or allergen. So, if it’s pollen season, you could have a hay fever cough throughout the duration of the season.

Consult with your health care professional should you experience cold symptoms lasting longer than two weeks.

Highlighting a Key Difference: Allergy Snot vs. Cold Snot

“Snot” may have a rather yucky connotation, but it can also help determine whether you have a cold. The snot and mucus you produce when you have the common cold are usually yellow or green and can also look thicker. With allergies, the snot and mucus tend to be clear and thin.

So don’t sneer at the snot. It might give you the answer to whether you have a cold or allergies.

Is it a Cold? Tackle it Fast with Zicam® Cold Remedy!

Once you figure out you have a cold, you want to take the necessary steps to get back to health as quickly as possible. When you’re looking to shorten the duration of your cold*, turn to Zicam® Cold Remedy products:

In addition to finding targeted symptomatic relief, you can try Zicam® Cold and Flu-Like Symptoms! These peppermint tablets can help with six symptoms commonly associated with cold and flu, including cough, sore throat, body aches and chest congestion.

Get Year-Round or Seasonal Allergy Relief, Too!

Zicam® offers more than products that help to shorten colds*. Try some of the following offerings when you have nasal congestion from seasonal or year-round allergies:

You can also look to protect your nose against nasal discomfort while easing congestion with Zicam® Nasal AllClear™ . The patented swab technology in this product helps to clear pollutants, irritants and excess mucus from the nasal passages while helping your nose to feel clean and moisturized.

Whether it’s Allergies or the Common Cold, Choose Zicam® Products!

Now you know about identifying colds vs. allergies and how to address the various symptoms associated with each. If you’re still confused as to whether allergies or the common cold are causing your symptoms, talk to your doctor.

Don’t wait around for colds or allergies to subside. Choose the Zicam® product you need so you can feel healthy and get back to the things you love doing!

*When taken at the first sign of a cold.

†Based on unit sales data, IRI total US Multi-Outlet, latest 52 weeks-ending 1/13/24.

‡Claims based on traditional homeopathic practice, not accepted medical evidence. Not FDA evaluated.

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