Cough: Cold or Allergy?

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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 excess 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.

How to Treat Your Cough

The most important way to tackle a cough is to first determine its cause. For an unexplained cough, see your doctor for a diagnosis and to figure out the best treatment for you.

The FDA discourages the use of any over-the-counter cold and cough remedies for children under the age of 2 years [source: FDA].

There is no cure for either colds or allergies but some treatments are similar. They may include:

  • Antihistamines to suppress the allergic reaction and reduce sneezing and runny nose of a cold. Antihistamines include diphenhydramine (Benadryl), loratadine (Claritin, Alavert), and cetirizine (Zyrtec) and fexofenadine (Allegra).

  • Decongestants to dry up and reduce congestion. Decongestants include pseudoephedrine (Sudafed), phenylephrine (Neo-Synephrine) and oxymetazoline (Afrin).

  • Saline nasal sprays to break up nasal congestion and rinse out nasal allergens.

To treat a cough due to known allergies your doctor may also prescribe:

  • Corticosteroids to reduce inflammation

  • Montelukast (Singulair) to relieve asthma and many other allergy symptoms

  • Allergy shots to help eliminate symptoms that are not well controlled by other medications

To treat a cough due to a cold try:

  • Gargling with warm salt water, using ice chips, throat sprays, or lozenges

  • Over-the-counter cough and cold medications to help ease symptoms; however, these types of medications will not make your cold go away faster. They are generally not recommended for people with asthma and children younger than four years unless prescribed by your doctor.

  • Supportive therapy to help you keep up your strength and recover as quickly as possible. Try to drink extra fluids, get extra sleep, and eat a healthy diet that includes plenty of fruits vegetables high in vitamin C.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Feb 12

  1. Allergic Rhinitis. American Academy of Family Physicians. http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/diseases-conditions/allergic-rhinitis.html



  2. All About Allergies. KidsHealth from Nemours. http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/allergy.html



  3. Asthma. American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology. http://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/asthma.aspx

  4. Cough in Children. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. http://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/library/at-a-glance/cough-in-children.aspx

  5. Rhinitis (Hay Fever). American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. http://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/library/at-a-glance/rhinitis.aspx

  6. What is Cough? National Institutes of Health. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/cough/

  7. Is It a Cold or an Allergy? National Institutes of Health. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. http://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/allergicdiseases/documents/coldallergy.pdf

  8. Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others. National Institutes of Health. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. http://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/commoncold/pages/default.aspx

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