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Is It an Allergy, a Cold or Something Worse?

How to figure out what's behind your sniffles and sneezes

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April showers bring spring flowers — as well as sniffles, sneezes and other uncomfortable symptoms for the millions of Americans who suffer from seasonal allergies. But with cold and flu viruses still circulating, how can you be sure what's causing your respiratory symptoms? Here are a few clues.

The nose knows

A stuffy, runny nose is common for both cold and allergies (not so much for the flu). If your drainage is clear, says Janna Tuck, an allergist and spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, that may be a sign of allergies, rather than a cold, which tends to produce greener hues.

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Eye irritation is a classic allergy symptom. As pollen counts go up, immune cells on the eye's surface can go into overdrive, resulting in eyes that are itchy, watery, swollen and red. A variety of treatments, including lubricating eye drops and medicated eye drops, can offer relief.

Sneezing and sore throats

Sneezing is another allergy hallmark, but a sore throat is more often a cold symptom. And while allergy symptoms tend to ramp up and then stay the same, colds follow a common progression, typically beginning with a sore throat before congestion and coughing set in.

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Coughing can come with a cold, allergies and (sometimes severely) the flu. If you suspect allergies are making you cough, look out for any accompanying wheezing, shortness of breath or chest tightness. These symptoms can be a sign of underlying asthma (which is often triggered by allergies), according to board-certified allergist Ronald Saff, an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the Florida State University College of Medicine.

Timing and severity

Allergy symptoms will last as long as you're exposed to the allergen, which can be several weeks. They also tend to recur at the same time each year. Cold and flu typically resolve within two weeks, but can make you miserable in the meantime — particularly the flu. Despite their persistence, people with allergies generally still feel well enough to go to work, Saff says.


If you find yourself with a sudden fever you've probably come down with a late-season flu. Don't delay a visit to a health care provider for treatment (other flu symptoms include body aches and severe fatigue).

The bottom line

Left untreated, allergies can lead to a range of complications, including sinus infections, ear infections and asthma. For any new, persistent or severe symptoms, Tuck and Saff say that visiting your health care provider is never a bad idea.

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