Is it a cold or is it “just” allergies?

At some point every fall, I find I ask myself the same question: Am I starting to come down with a head cold…or is this “just” allergies? I put just in quotes because, even if it’s “just” allergies, it’s making me miserable enough to wonder if I’m coming down with a cold.

Being a working mom on the go, I really can’t afford any downtime, so when I am having the cold-versus-allergies dilemma, I find myself taking constant stock of my symptoms to determine a plan of attack or to decide whether it’s time to throw in the towel and send myself home to rest (also to hopefully prevent anyone else from catching my germs!).

I reached out to Family Medicine physician Daryn McClure, MD, to help me figure out the telltale differences between the two, and as you can see from the table below, while there can be many similarities, there are key differences as well.

(*Please note just because the table may say the symptom can be present, it doesn’t mean it always will be)

Symptom Allergies Cold
Cough Yes (but it’s usually a dry, hacking cough) Yes (but it’s usually productive )
Headache Yes Yes
Itchy Watery eyes Yes No
Low grade fever No In some cases
Muscle Aches No Yes
Runny nose Yes (but the discharge is clear) Yes (but the discharge is often thicker and yellow or green)
Severe Fatigue No Yes
Sinus Pressure Yes Yes
Sneezing Yes Yes
Wheezing In some cases –unusual in people without Asthma In some cases – unusual in people without Asthma
Symptom Development Can be quite sudden Usually takes a day or two for full development
Duration As long as allergens are present Should start to improve after 10 days


Since I do find I am asking myself the same question year after year, it may be time to finally admit to myself that I need an allergy test. Some family physicians like Dr. McClure do allergy testing in their office, so visiting an allergist may not even be necessary. Once I have my results in hand, if I find out I’m severely allergic to Bermuda grass, for example, I can reconsider that lawn I was thinking of putting in next spring!

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