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Allergies or Common Cold? Learn the Differences and Natural Solutions

Allergies or Common Cold? Learn the Differences and Natural Solutions

Published: 14 March, 2024 | 9'

Changes in seasons often coincide with colds due to sharp changes in temperature, but they also often cause a spike in allergies, especially during springtime.

As allergies and common colds share some symptoms like a runny nose or sneezes, we often get them confused. However, they are very different and there are some keys to consider to distinguish between them.

With the help of Doctor Jacinto Valverde, internist and populariser, we explain what colds and allergies are, as well as their causes and main symptoms to differentiate them.

How to tell if it's an allergy or a cold

To learn to differentiate an allergy from a cold, "the first thing is to identify the symptoms, but other factors such as the duration of these symptoms, as well as how quickly they appear should also be taken into account," explains the doctor.

When faced with the most common symptoms such as congestion or sneezing, it is very common to think that we have caught a cold, especially if we have never suffered from seasonal allergies, so it is important to know what allergies and colds are, to be able to identify them and choose the correct treatment in each case.

What are allergies and why do they occur?

Allergies are common conditions and, in most cases, chronic, that are directly related to the immune system, which is our body's defence network against invaders like viruses, bacteria or other infectious agents. In the case of an allergic reaction, the immune system responds to an outside agent, which it detects as a threat.

There are different types of allergies, the most common ones are atopic dermatitis, allergic rhinitis and food allergies. Doctor Valverde explains that "all of them cause different symptoms in the body, but those most similar to a cold and which can cause confusion are symptoms of allergic rhinitis".

Allergic rhinitis

Allergic rhinitis occurs due to exposure to allergens such as pollen, dust, some pets or mould. These particles may end up in our nose or throat and cause an inflammatory response.

Spring is known for being the time when temperatures soften and is characterised by the proliferation of pollen. The rise in temperatures intensifies pollination and therefore, is when allergic people suffer most symptoms of allergic rhinitis, resulting in the well-known spring allergy.

Main symptoms of allergic rhinitis or spring allergy

allergic rhinitis

The symptoms of allergic rhinitis can appear more frequently during springtime primarily due to pollen in the environment, although they can also occur during other seasons like summer or autumn. The symptoms of allergic rhinitis result from our body's immunological response after exposure to the allergen, with the most common being:

  • Sneezing.
  • Nasal secretion or congestion.
  • Itchiness in the nose, eyes or throat.
  • Tearing or reddening of the eyes.
  • Cough.

How long do allergies last?

An allergy is a chronic condition, although the symptoms are not continuous as they present upon exposure to the allergen. In the case of seasonal allergies like allergic rhinitis that appears in spring due to pollen, "it usually lasts as long as you're exposed to the allergen", the doctor informs, "so at this time of year it can last even more than 6 weeks".

What are common colds and why do they occur?

The common cold is an infection caused by over 200 types of viruses that affect the upper respiratory tract, especially the nose and throat. It is mainly caused by what are known as rhinoviruses and is usually a standalone pathological entity with mild to moderate symptoms. 

In order for the viruses to cause infection, one must have contact or close exposure to contaminated surfaces and infected people; when an infected person coughs or sneezes near a healthy person they transmit the virus via the aerosol effect, which is simply the airborne spread of watery particles that can reach the nose or throat.

Even if we do not have any allergies, seasonal changes can disrupt the defences of our immune system and irritate the respiratory tract. Therefore, "During spring, in addition to a surge of allergies, there is also a high occurrence of common colds," adds Dr. Valverde. 

Main symptoms of colds

The symptoms of a common cold usually begin 2 to 3 days after coming into contact with the virus, last for about a week, and primarily affect the nose. 

  • The first signs of a cold are sore throat and a runny nose (with green or yellow nasal secretion).
  • Followed by a dry cough and sneezing.
  • An occasional fever below 38°C, although this symptom is more common in children than adults.
  • Muscular pain.
  • Fatigue.
  • Headache.

How long does a cold last?

Unlike allergies, most colds vanish within a few days. Generally, they do not tend to last more than 7-10 days and are unlikely to last more than two weeks. Therefore, if symptoms persist, it is advisable to consult with a general practitioner as they could manifest other associated problems such as bronchitis, ear infections, sinusitis, or pneumonia. 

What are the main differences between allergies and common colds?

Although they share many symptoms, allergies and colds have clear differences. “The main difference is that in a catarrhal picture or colds we will present general malaise and we can have slight fever, while in an allergic picture this should not occur, reports Dr. Jacinto Valverde. 

Furthermore, “in colds, the type of mucus is greenish or yellowish and tends to be thick, while in allergies the mucus is a more constant and watery runny nose”, he adds.

Sneezing is another major differentiator, since in an allergic episode sneezing crises are paroxysmal, that is, several are chained together in quick succession, but in colds this doesn't necessarily have to happen”, the doctor explains.

Another difference can be found in nasal and eye itching, and redness of the latter. “In allergies we can display red eyes like conjunctivitis, but not in colds”, adds Valverde.

Finally, another factor to consider in differentiating them is symptom onset. With allergies, symptoms appear when in contact with the aggressor and are persistent, whereas with colds they appear gradually and are relatively mild. Thus, the duration is also a clear distinguishing factor since a cold usually lasts for a few days, while a springtime allergy can last throughout the entire season.

Main symptoms to differentiate allergies and colds 

Let's visually see the common symptoms of allergies and colds, such as congestion or mucus, cough, and sneezing, plus the rest of the differentiating symptoms: 

infographic allergy or cold


How to Treat Colds and Allergies

Although they share symptoms, the treatment for a common cold or flu is not the same, as they are completely distinct conditions. Both in the case of colds and allergies, symptoms are caused by the immune system response, however, the causative agent is different. Colds are produced by a virus, while allergies by external agents called allergens. The quantity and quality of immune responses to either of these two conditions is different for each individual. 

What to take for allergies?

When experiencing allergy symptoms, it is recommended to consult a healthcare professional, who is best suited to provide the diagnosis with tests that determine the type of allergy and can indicate the appropriate treatment. 

There are different options for controlling the symptoms of spring allergy or allergic rhinitis:

  • Medication with antihistamines and immunotherapy, more commonly known as the allergy vaccine.
  • Basic day-to-day guidelines such as avoiding the outdoors during pollen peaks, wearing a mask, or keeping windows closed at home or in the car.
  • Dietary supplements based on plant-based ingredients commonly used in respiratory ailments.

Natural ingredients helpful during the allergic response

Natural ingredients helpful during the allergic response

When the immune system perceives an allergen, such as pollen in spring allergy, it generates a substance called histamine (hence why allergy medications are categorized as antihistamines). The immune system plays a fundamental role in the response to these allergens, therefore important to keep it in good health and with a sufficient intake of nutrients.

Therefore, "consuming foods associated with decreasing histamine, as well as having a diet rich in nutrients that provide antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals will be most advisable in controlling allergies symptoms", reports the doctor.

Some natural ingredients are useful alternatives during an allergy episode:

  • The flavonol quercetin, contained in apples and onions.
  • Citrus fruits are rich in vitamin C, a nutrient that contributes to the normal functioning of the immune system.
  • The green tea thanks to its content in epigallocatechin.
  • The turmeric and ginger provide antioxidant action and facilitate immune processes.
  • The nettle is also a traditional ingredient that aids both the immune and respiratory system.

Dietary supplements

We can find these and other actives in the form of dietary supplements based on plant ingredients like helichrysum or blackcurrant, which aid the wellbeing of nose and mouth.

These actives can also be combined with ingredients that contribute to the normal functioning of the immune system, like red ginseng (Panax ginseng). Specifically, black cumin in traditional herbalism, both in seeds and oil, is seen as a natural solution in relieving discomfort in the throat and nose.

What to take for colds?

When faced with symptoms of a cold, as Dr. Valverde clearly indicates, "the usual recommendations are to rest, since a common cold can recede on its own after a few days or specific symptoms such as congestion or cough can be treated"

Some guidelines that we can follow to care for a cold are:

  • Rest and avoid overexertion.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Consult a healthcare professional if there are any doubts, persistence of symptoms or worsening conditions.

Tips to reduce the occurrence of allergies and colds

Although allergies may be chronic conditions and colds are spread by viruses, in both cases, our defence function against external agents plays a vital role. So, a common measure for both conditions would be to take care of our immune system, along with other lifestyle tips applicable to each case.

Recommendations for spring allergies

To mitigate symptoms related to spring allergies, it's best to avoid exposure to pollens as much as possible, although this might be challenging as pollens are usually found in the environment during the entire spring and autumn seasons.

What we can indeed do is take steps to reduce exposure such as:

  • Avoid visiting places with abundant vegetation such as the countryside, parks, gardens, or grassy areas.
  • Use a mask if you visit such places.
  • Protect the windows or balconies of your home with mosquito nets to reduce the entry of pollen, and try to keep them closed as much as possible.
  • Don't open the car windows during journeys and check the state of the pollen filters.
  • Avoid items in the home that could accumulate dust or pollen like soft toys, carpets, or curtains.
  • When cleaning the house, use vacuum cleaners and damp cloths to avoid stirring up dust that may have settled on the floor or furniture.
  • Check for pollen count information in newspapers or internet from official sources like the SEAIC to avoid spending prolonged time outdoors on days with a high index. Allergy symptoms may appear from 50 pollen grains per cubic millimetre of air.

Recommendations for colds or nasal congestion

Even though these viruses are present throughout the year, during cold months or changes in seasons we could be more vulnerable to contracting them.

Some measures that could help us include:

  • Washing our hands frequently.
  • Cleaning common contact surfaces such as door handles, wash basins, stair railings, etc.
  • Using hand sanitisers that contain at least 60% alcohol to stop the spread of germs.
  • In communal areas, use paper towels instead of sharing cloth towels.

Maintaining a balanced diet in nutrients, as they are essential for the proper functioning of our immune system. The Vitamin C or zinc are very useful for supporting a healthy immune system. The echinacea is a natural ingredient that can be found in dietary supplements, and has a broad use and health benefits for normal functioning of the immune system.


Content prepared in collaboration with Dr. Jacinto Valverde Navas. This article is informational and does not substitute a consultation with a specialist.

Doctor Jacinto ValverdeAbout the specialist

Dr Jacinto Valverde Navas

With over 30 years of experience, Dr Jacinto Valverde Navas is Head of the Internal Medicine Department at Beata María Ana de Jesús Hospital in Madrid, where he provides comprehensive and scientific care to patients from an integral perspective.

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