Springtime Sniffles: Is It a Cold or Seasonal Allergies?

Your child is sneezing and feeling downright yucky. Is it a cold or seasonal allergies? Knowing the difference can guide you to the right quick-relief steps, help prevent future symptoms, and even head off complications like ear infections, sinus infections and worsening asthma.

One in 11 kids and teens has a pollen allergy, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Here's how to tell the difference between seasonal allergies and colds and how to treat them.

Allergies vs. The Common Cold

BlogRecurrent colds often can be confused with developing environmental allergies, says pediatric allergist Kathryn Ruda Wessell, DO.

Seasonal allergies occur when airborne pollen particles prompt the immune cells in the nose and airways to overact and release chemicals such as histamine. This leads to classic allergy symptoms like:

  • Sneezing
  • Clear discharge from the nose
  • Red, itchy, watery eyes (sometimes with dark circles underneath)
  • Itchiness in tough-to-scratch places like the roof of the mouth or inside the nose or ears

“Colds, on the other hand, are caused by a host of viruses,” Dr. Wessell says.

“Symptoms of a cold may include congestion, a runny nose, sore throat and a cough – but not itching," she says. "Itching often is the symptom that differentiates recurrent viruses from allergies.

Your child may also have a headache, muscle aches, fatigue or a low fever with a cold. The typical cold lasts for two weeks or less.

Allergies can be triggered by a number of factors, depending on the time of year, Dr. Ruda Wessell says.

“Many spring allergies are triggered by pollen," she says. "In early spring, most comes from blooming trees. Later in the season, pollen from grasses can provoke symptoms, and in the late summer and early autumn various weeds can trigger symptoms."

Some allergens, such as pets and dust mites, can cause symptoms year-round, she says.

Does Your Child Need a Diagnosis?

Kids can develop seasonal allergies at any time during childhood, Dr. Ruda Wessell says.

If you suspect your child has a spring allergy but want to be certain, a pediatric allergy specialist can help by using allergy testing to diagnose your child and identify his or her triggers. That way, you can take steps to control or prevent your child's symptoms with confidence.

“This can be especially helpful for severe spring allergies that don't respond to prescription or over-the-counter medicines, or lead to frequent health complications,” Dr. Ruda Wessell says.

Strategies for Allergy Relief

The first step toward relief is reducing your child's exposure to pollen. Keep track of the pollen count in your area. Keep doors and windows in your home and car closed on high-pollen days and run the air conditioner to filter the air. Change the filters in the air conditioner units every month, too.

If symptoms persist, ask your child's pediatrician about the best over-the-counter allergy medicine for your child. If over-the-counter medicine isn't enough, research shows that weekly to monthly allergy shots are effective for kids. The shots can build up immunity to troublesome allergens.

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