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Sneezing and Sniffling: How to Tell If It's Allergies or a Cold by AAFA

Sneezing and Sniffling: How to Tell If It's Allergies or a Cold by AAFA

It can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between allergies and a common cold. Both allergies and cold viruses tend to become widespread at certain times of the year, which is why you may mistake a cold for seasonal allergies.

Allergies and viral infections can cause rhinitis. The word rhinitis means “inflammation of the nose.” The nose produces fluid called mucus. This fluid is normally thin and clear. It helps to keep dust, debris and allergens out of the lungs. Mucus traps particles like dust and pollen, as well as bacteria and viruses.

What Are the Different Types of Rhinitis?

There are several types of rhinitis:

  • Allergic rhinitis is caused by allergies to substances called allergens.  There are two types of allergic rhinitis: seasonal and perennial (year-round).
    • Seasonal allergic rhinitis is sometimes called “hay fever.” It is an allergic reaction to pollen from trees, grasses and weeds. This type of rhinitis occurs mainly in the spring and fall, when pollen from trees, grasses and weeds are in the air.
    • Perennial allergic rhinitis is caused by allergens that are present all year long. The primary causes of this type of rhinitis are allergies to dust mites, mold, animal dander and cockroach debris.
  • Non-allergic rhinitis is not caused by allergens. Smoke, chemicals or other irritating environmental conditions may provoke non-allergic rhinitis. Hormonal changes, physical defects of the nose (like a deviated septum) and the overuse of nose sprays may also cause it.
  • Infectious rhinitis is possibly the most common type of rhinitis. It is also known as the common cold or upper respiratory infection (URI). Colds occur when a cold virus settles into the mucous membranes of the nose and sinus cavities and causes an infection.

How Can You Tell the Difference Between Allergies and a Common Cold?




Time of year

Can be year-round or seasonal, depending on your allergies

Can happen at any time, but most often in the winter

How long it lasts

Days to months:
for as long as you are 
exposed to the allergen

Less than 14 days

Itching in the eye and nose



Stuffy nose (congestion)

Runny nose

Mucus (phlegm) in the throat (postnasal drip)


If You Have Asthma, Take Extra Care

If you have asthma, remember that allergies and respiratory infections can affect your asthma. Respiratory infections include the common cold, the flu and other infections.

These common illnesses can affect your lungs when you have asthma. They can cause inflammation (swelling) and narrowing of your airways. These changes could trigger asthma symptoms (an asthma episode or an asthma attack).

Stay healthy and prevent infections. Talk to your allergist or asthma specialist if you have any questions or concern

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