You may be confused about whether your stuffy nose is the result of a cold or allergies. Here are three ways to tell the difference.

3 ways to tell if you have a cold or allergies

Image Fall Allergy Allergies Image Fall Allergy Allergies Image Fall Allergy Allergies

When seasons change, pollen counts do, too. With that brings annoying allergy flare ups.

In the fall the culprit is ragweed, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. The weeds grow in most regions, typically blooming and producing a fine-powder pollen from August into November, reaching peak levels in September.

When you are miserable with a runny nose, distinguishing between a cold and allergy can be confusing.

“Unlike colds, allergies aren't contagious,” explains Casey Nekl, M.D., an ear, nose and throat specialist at Sentara ENT Specialists in Elizabeth City, N.C. “Colds are caused by a virus. Allergies are caused by our immune system overreacting to a harmless particle.”

Common allergy symptoms include:

  • Nasal congestion
  • Sinus pressure
  • Runny nose
  • Itchy, watery eyes
  • Scratchy throat 
  • Cough
  • Swollen, bluish-colored skin beneath the eyes

Those with colds can experience many of these symptoms along with headaches, body aches and a fever.

3 Questions to Ask

So with all the similarities in symptoms, how can we tell the difference between allergies and a cold? Ask these three questions, Dr. Nekl says.

1. When did symptoms start?

Cold symptoms take a few days to appear, while allergy symptoms may begin immediately after an exposure.

2. What time of year do the symptoms happen and do they occur each year around the same time?

Most colds occur in the winter, while allergy symptoms can appear any time of the year that the allergen is available.

3. How long do the symptoms last?

Cold symptoms usually last three days to two weeks while allergy symptoms can last for days to months as long as the allergen is in contact with the individual.

If a cold persists, it could eventually lead to a sinus infection when stagnant mucous stays in the sinuses, providing a breeding ground for bacteria.

If allergies are the root of the problem, take note what time of year they started and take a pre-emptive approach the next year if they are seasonal due to pollen.

“Over-the-counter allergy meds are best started prior to the allergy appearance,” Dr. Nekl says. “Two weeks is a good time frame.”