Cold vs. Allergy in Children: How to Tell the Difference

Colds are infections of the upper respiratory tract (sinuses, nasal passages, throat, and larynx). They are caused by several different viruses. They are spread by:

  • Touching a person with a cold
  • Touching an object that someone with a cold has touched
  • Breathing the virus in the air after someone with a cold has coughed or sneezed into the air

Seasonal allergies (hay fever) are caused by the immune system reacting to pollen from trees, grasses, and weeds as if it were harmful to the body. This reaction causes symptoms that can seem like a cold. Allergies often run in families. Seasonal allergies occur at the same time each year. If your child has allergy symptoms all year, they may be allergic to things (allergens) in the home. These can include dust mites, animals, mold, and cockroaches.

The table below is a guide to symptoms. See your child's healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

Symptoms

Allergy (Airborne)

Cold

Stuffy or runny nose

Often

Often

Sneezing

Often

Often

Sore scratchy throat

Often

Often

Wheezing Yes Yes
Red or itchy eyes

Often

Rarely

Fever

Never

Often, especially at the start of a cold

Weakness and lack of energy (fatigue)

Sometimes

Sometimes

Body aches No Yes
Headache

Sometimes

Often

Cough

Sometimes

Often

Hoarseness

Sometimes

Often

Occur at a certain time of year

Often

Rarely

Need for antibiotics

No

No

Warning time

Symptoms occur after exposure to allergen

Gets worse over several days

How long it lasts

As long as your child is exposed to the allergen

Usually 3 to 14 days

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