Allergies or the Common Cold: Who’s the Culprit?


By Hallie Hudson, PharmD

Luckily, for those of us here in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, spring is here! And although that (hopefully) means warmer weather and more sunshine, it also means that allergy season may be around the corner for some of us.

So how can you tell the difference between allergies and the common cold?

First, it’s important to keep in mind that the common cold is a virus that is spread from person to person. However, allergies are not spread from person to person; instead, allergies are triggered by something in your environment (an “allergen”) such as dust, pollen, or pet dander.

Seasonal allergies are most common in the warmer months, during spring, summer, or early fall. Seasonal allergies are typically triggered by mold spores or pollen from trees, weeds, or grass. For those with year-round allergies, symptoms are typically triggered by indoor allergens such as pet dander, dust mites, or mold.

Now, let’s take a look at the symptoms of each showing similarities and differences between seasonal allergies and the common cold:

Seasonal Allergies

  • Runny nose is common

  • Sneezing is common

  • Congestion/stuffy nose is common

  • Itchy, watery eyes are common

  • May have a sore throat

  • General aches and pain are uncommon

  • Cough can occur sometimes

  • Not associated with a fever

  • Allergy symptoms tend to start immediately (as soon as you come in to contact with the allergen)

  • Allergy symptoms typically last for 2 to 3 weeks at a time (or for as long as you are exposed to the allergen)

Common Cold

  • Runny nose is common

  • Sneezing is common

  • Congestion/stuffy nose is common

  • Itchy, watery eyes are uncommon

  • Sore throat is common

  • General aches and pains are common

  • Cough is common

  • May have a fever

  • Cold symptoms tend to develop over several days

  • Symptoms of the common cold tend to last 7 to 10 days

There are many over-the-counter products that you can use to help with allergy symptoms. Let’s take a look at some of the common allergy medications that you can find at the pharmacy.

Oral Antihistamines

Examples: Claritin® (Loratadine), Allegra® (Fexofenadine), Zytrec® (Cetirizine), Xyzal® (Levocetirizine)

  • Alleviates common allergy symptoms including sneezing, itchy or watery eyes, runny nose, & itchy throat or nose

  • Typically taken daily or as needed for allergy symptoms (generally last for 24 hours)

  • The antihistamines listed on the left are marketed as non-drowsy, once daily medication medications and are available over-the-counter

  • Do not take more than one type of oral antihistamine at a time or take more of the medication than instructed

  • Everyone is different, so one of the oral antihistamines may work better than another. For example, Zyrtec® (cetirizine) and Xyzal® (levocetirizine) may work better for some, but may also potentially cause drowsiness

Intranasal Steroids

Examples: Flonase Allergy Relief® (Fluticasone propionate), Flonase Sensimist® (Fluticasone furoate), Nasacort Allergy 24HR® (Triamcinolone), Rhinocort Allergy Spray® (Budesonide)

  • Generally, the most effective treatment for nasal symptoms related to allergies

  • Help to prevent & relieve runny nose, sneezing, and stuffiness associated with seasonal allergies

  • Can take several days (or even up to 2 weeks) to see the maximum improvement on nasal symptoms

  • All over-the-counter nasal steroids are used once daily

Intranasal Decongestants

Examples: Afrin®, Sinex®, Dristan® (Oxymetazoline)

Intranasal decongestants are effective in providing short-term relief of nasal congestion; however, these medications do not have much of an effect on itching, sneezing, or runny nose. You should only use these medications for 2 to 3 days – otherwise, it can result in rebound congestion, which typically occurs after 5 to 10 days of treatment.

Eye Lubricants

Examples: Systane®, Refresh Tears® (Artificial Tears)

Artificial tears help to relieve dry, irritated eyes. In addition, artificial tears can also help to wash the irritant (allergen) from your eyes.

Antihistamine Eye Drops

Examples: Zaditor®, Alaway® (Ketotifen fumarate)

Relieves itchy eyes due to pollen, grass, ragweed, animal hair & dander. Provides up to 12 hours of itch relief.

Decongestant Eye Drops

Examples: Visine® (Tetrahydrozoline HCl)

Relieves redness of the eye. Do not use these eye drops for more than 3 days.

Decongestant + Antihistamine Eye Drops

Examples: Visine-A®, Naphcon-A® (Naphazoline HCl/Pheniramine maleate)

Relieves itchy, red eyes due to pollen, grass, ragweed, animal hair & dander. Do not use these eye drops for more than 3 days.

Are there other ways to prevent allergy symptoms?

Yes, you can help manage your allergy symptoms by recognizing and avoiding exposure to allergens.

Outdoor Allergens

  • Avoid being outdoors when pollen counts are high

  • Shower and change clothes after being outside

  • Use air conditioning instead of opening doors or windows

  • Use a dryer rather drying clothes and linens outside

Indoor Allergens

  • Cover pillows and mattresses with allergy free or dust mite covers and use high efficiency particular air (HEPA) vacuums to reduce dust mite contamination in carpets

  • Use air conditioning to decrease humidity, and clean surfaces with a dilute bleach solution to help reduce mold

  • Wash or remove stuffed animals

  • Wash bedding in hot water

Important Notes:

  • It is always important to visit your doctor for a diagnosis. Keep in mind, it is possible that you could be suffering from seasonal allergies and an infection at the same time.

  • Do not start any over-the-counter medications without consulting your doctor or pharmacist first. There are certain medications that are not appropriate for all patients, especially those with high blood pressure, heart disease, prostate issues, glaucoma, diabetes, or pregnant or breastfeeding women.

  • If you have questions on a particular over-the-counter allergy medication, don’t hesitate to ask your pharmacist. There are many options that can help to alleviate your allergy symptoms.

This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. We encourage you to discuss with your doctor any questions or concerns you may have.


1.        Treatment of the Common Cold in Children and Adults. American Family Physician. Accessed January 20, 2019.

2.        Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed January 20, 2019.

3.        Allergies: Questions & Answers. Cleveland Clinic. Accessed January 20, 2019.