Sneezing, scratchy throat, runny nose—everyone knows the first signs of a cold, probably the most common illness known. Although the common cold is usually mild, with symptoms lasting from a couple of days to a couple of weeks, it is a leading cause of doctor visits and missed days from school and work in the United States.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), 62 million cases of the common cold occur each year. In its most recent survey, NCHS reported that 20 million school days and 22 million days of work are lost annually due to the common cold. Children have about two to six colds a year, while adults average about one to three colds a year.

How can you be sure, though, it’s not an allergy instead? Airborne allergens you breathe in can cause stuffy nose, itchy nose and throat, mucous production, cough and wheezing. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) approximately 35-40 million Americans suffer with respiratory symptoms that are the result of the body’s reaction to airborne allergens.

Is it a cold or an allergy you’re dealing with? Take a look at the chart for the differences in symptoms, treatment and prevention of colds and allergies. In general, cold symptoms last an average of a week to 10 days. If your symptoms return often or last much longer than two weeks, chances are you have an allergy rather than a cold.

Common colds are caused by viruses, while seasonal allergies are an overly-sensitive immune system’s response when triggered by exposure to an allergen. Treatment of a common cold may include getting extra rest, drinking plenty of fluids, and pain relievers and over-the-counter cold remedies, such as decongestants. Antibiotics do not work in treating a cold. Antibiotics kill bacterial infections, but colds are caused by viruses, not bacteria.

Treatment of seasonal allergies usually include over-the-counter or prescription antihistamines, nasal steroid sprays and decongestants, and avoidance of exposure to allergens where possible. Allergy injections may be another option your physician suggests in order to help your body may develop a tolerance to a particular allergen.

Although cold and nasal allergy symptoms are rarely serious, they can sometimes lead to other problems. For instance, both colds and allergies can lead to sinus infections. Colds may also lead to a middle ear infection. If you think you might have allergies – or your cold symptoms seem severe – see your doctor.

Is it a cold or an allergy?



General Aches, Pains
Fatigue, Weakness
Itchy Eyes
Rare or Never
Sore Throat
Runny Nose Common
Stuffy Nose Common
Fever Rare Never
Duration 3-14 days
Weeks (for example, 6 weeks for ragweed or grass pollen seasons)










Doctor’s Warning

Do not give aspirin to children or teenagers to treat a cold, even if the symptoms include fever. Aspirin may increase the risk of Reye’s syndrome, a rare disorder that occurs almost exclusively in children under the age of 15. Reye’s can cause severe liver and brain damage – and can even be fatal. Consult your doctor about acceptable fever-reducing medicines for your child.

John Hornback, D.O. is a Family Medicine physician practicing with Northwest Allied Physicians.

Sources: National Institutes of Health; National Center for Health Statistics

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