Is it Allergies or a Summer Cold?

The sun is out and the temperature has climbed, but instead of enjoying all that the season has to offer, you’re sniffling, sneezing, and rubbing your eyes. Are you suffering from a summer cold or do you have allergies? It’s not always easy to tell: According to doctors, there’s a lot of overlap in the symptoms. There are, however, five clues that may help you figure out what’s causing your discomfort:

  1. Timing. Did you have symptoms last year at this time? Allergens such as ragweed and tree pollen proliferate at the same time annually. If you always seem to have a runny nose in the middle of July, you may be suffering from seasonal allergies.
  2. Duration. Just as in other seasons, a cold may last up to a week and a half. An allergy, on the other hand, may cause symptoms for weeks at a time.
  3. Other symptoms. Did you experience a sore throat before all the nasal congestion started? There’s a good chance it’s a cold. Are your eyes itchy? Consider allergies. And although a few people have allergies so severe that they can cause a fever, for most people a slight fever will point to a cold.
  4. Exposure. If you’ve spent time around children (who are notorious germ carriers) or people who are sick, you may assume your symptoms are the result of a cold.
  5. Symptom variety. What happens when you step outside? Start sneezing and you can bet you’ve got an allergy. Do your symptoms come and go with the rise and fall of daily pollen counts? Again, that’s strong evidence of an allergy.

Treating Your Symptoms

How important is it that you actually figure out what you’ve got? Truthfully, if you’re just looking to treat the immediate symptoms, it doesn’t matter much. The therapies for both a cold and allergies—decongestants, eye drops, and nasal sprays—are very similar and will accomplish the same thing, according to David Rosenstreich, MD, chief of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. "Sometimes allergy medication will help for a cold as well," he says.

But sufferers who have frequent or ongoing symptoms may need answers. "If you suspect an allergy, you may want to get it formally evaluated," says Casey Curtis, MD, an allergy specialist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, adding that by learning what you’re allergic to, you can take steps to prevent exposure.

Testing for allergies involves seeing an allergist and getting either a skin or a blood test for the various allergens in your geographical area. Curtis points out that even if you previously tested negative for allergies, persistent symptoms merit another look, since allergies can arise at any time.

David Rosenstreich, MD, and Casey Curtis, MD, reviewed this article.


Rosenstreich, David, MD. Phone conversation with source. June 9, 2015.

Curtis, Casey, MD. Phone conversation with source. June 10, 2015.