Cough: Cold or Allergy?

By

Spader, Catherine, RN

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At Your Appointment

What to Ask Your Doctor About Allergies

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Woman sneezing by desk

An irritating cough is often the first symptom of a cold but it’s also a symptom of allergies. How do you know whether your cough is caused by a cold or an allergy? There are key differences and other facts you should know to best soothe your cough.



What Happens When You Cough?

Coughing is a reflex that helps protects your lungs from irritating or dangerous substances. These include allergens, viruses, bacteria, and smoke. Coughing also helps clear your airways of mucus produced due to a cold, allergies, or other diseases, such as the flu.

What Is the Difference Between a Cold and an Allergy?

Cold and allergies have many similar symptoms, such as coughing, runny nose, and sneezing. If you have asthma, both conditions can also cause wheezing and shortness of breath. However, colds and allergies are different conditions with distinct causes.

Allergies:

  • Are caused by an abnormal sensitivity of your immune system to normally harmless substances (allergens), such as dust, pollen, and animal dander

  • Are not infectious or contagious

  • Are irregular. For example, a cough that occurs during pollen season may go away after the season is over.

  • Can include frequent or long-lasting symptoms in people with severe or multiple allergies

  • Trigger coughing less often than colds

  • Often cause itchy eyes

  • Do not cause fever, swollen glands, or body aches

Colds:

  • Are due to a viral infection of your nose and throat

  • Are infectious and contagious. For example, if your cough is due to a cold, other members in your household may also develop a cough.

  • Occur most often in the winter

  • Generally have symptoms that last for one to two weeks

  • Cause coughing more often than allergies

  • Rarely cause itching eyes

  • Commonly occur with sore throat and sometimes with fever, body aches, or swollen glands

How Does Your Doctor Distinguish Between a Cold vs. Allergy?

The best way to determine whether you or your child has a respiratory infection or an allergy is to schedule a visit with your doctor or pediatrician. He or she will look at your symptoms and how long the symptoms last. A cough due to allergies tends to be associated with watery, itchy eyes, and clear, watery discharge from the nose. In addition, many people suffering from allergies have dark circles under their eyes.

A cough due to cold will usually go away after 14 days. If you have a cold, you may also have body aches or a low-grade fever, which do not occur with allergies.

You can help your doctor diagnose your symptoms by keeping track of when and how often the symptoms occur, and what activities you or your child were involved in when the cough started.

Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Dec 15, 2013

© 2015 Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the Healthgrades User Agreement.

View Sources

Medical References

  1. Allergic Rhinitis, FamilyDoctor.org, accessed November 26, 2011 (http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/common/allergies/basics/083.html);
  2. Common Airborne Allergens, KidsHealth.org, accessed November 26, 2011 (http://kidshealth.org/parent/medical/allergies/allergy.html#a_Common_Airborne_Allergens); Asthma, American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology, accessed November 26, 2011 (http://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/asthma.aspx);
  3. Chronic Cough in Children, American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology, accessed November 26, 2011 (http://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/library/at-a-glance/cough-in-children.aspx);
  4. Rhinitis (Hay Fever), American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology, accessed November 26, 2011 (http://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/library/at-a-glance/rhinitis.aspx);
  5. Allergies, PubMed Health, accessed November 26, 2011 (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001815/#adam_000812.disease.treatment);
  6. Allergic Rhinitis, PubMed Health, accessed November 26, 2011 (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001816/);
  7. What is Cough? National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, accessed November 26, 2011 (http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/cough/);
  8. Is It a Cold or an Allergy? National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, accessed November 26, 2011 (http://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/allergicdiseases/documents/coldallergy.pdf);
  9. Common Cold, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, accessed November 26, 2011 (http://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/commoncold/pages/default.aspx);

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