How Do You Tell If Your Child Has Allergies or a Cold?

Medically Reviewed on 8/18/2021
Colds and allergies have different causes, but both involve the body's immune system. Since the symptoms of allergies and the symptoms of a cold overlap, it can be hard to tell which one your child has.
Colds and allergies have different causes, but both involve the body's immune system. Since the symptoms of allergies and the symptoms of a cold overlap, it can be hard to tell which one your child has.

When your child feels miserable, you probably feel bad, too. It's a natural parenting instinct to fix what's wrong. But when your child is sneezing and has a runny nose, first you must figure out the cause. Does your child have a cold or allergies? It's not always easy to tell.

Children have about eight colds a year, so you may suspect the common cold. Still, about 40% of Americans have seasonal allergies. Your child could be one of them.

Understand the causes

Colds and allergies have different causes, but both involve the body's immune system. Colds are caused by a virus. When the immune system fights the virus, it triggers some cold symptoms.

Allergies are caused by an overactive immune system that reacts to particles like dust and pollen. The immune system releases chemicals like histamine, causing cold-like symptoms.

Checking your child's symptoms

Since the symptoms of allergies and the symptoms of a cold overlap, it can be hard to tell which one your child has. Even your child's doctor may not know for sure.

Both colds and allergies can cause a runny nose, stuffiness, and sneezing. Sometimes drainage from allergies will trigger a cough or a sore throat, but these symptoms are usually more typical of colds.

Symptoms that suggest a cold

Some symptoms strongly suggest that your child has a cold. These include:

Fever. If your child has a fever, you don't need to wonder any longer. Allergies never cause fever. Colds sometimes do. A fever may also make your child listless or achy. Allergies seldom cause these symptoms.  

Red nasal membranes. If you look inside your child's nose like a doctor would, you may uncover another clue. Nasal tissues that are red, swollen, and inflamed suggest a cold. Thick, yellow mucus also indicates a cold, but the mucus may also be thin and clear. 


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Symptoms that suggest allergies

Some physical symptoms usually indicate seasonal allergies. These include:

Nasal crease. Allergies often cause children to rub their noses, usually with an up-and-down movement. When repeated often, this movement can cause a line just above the roundest part of the nose. This line or crease can be paler or redder than the surrounding skin.

Pale nasal membranes. Allergies usually make the tissue inside the nose look pale or even bluish. Nasal discharge will be clear or white.

Itchy, watery eyes. Allergies are more likely than colds to cause this symptom. Particles that cause allergies can irritate the conjunctiva, the clear membrane that lines the eyeball and eyelids.

Dark circles under the eyes. This symptom points to allergies rather than a cold. Known as allergic shiners, this symptom is caused by swollen blood vessels around the eyes. If your child doesn't normally have dark circles, this symptom suggests allergies.

Other ways to recognize a cold vs. allergies

Circumstances around your child's illness may also suggest either a cold or allergies. Consider these indicators:

The age of your child. Seasonal allergies are triggered by repeated exposure to a substance. For that reason, children under the age of one almost never have seasonal allergies.

Changes in the calendar. Allergies are worse in the spring and in the fall. Trees pollinate in the early spring. Grass pollinates a little later. Weeds release pollen from August to October. Ragweed, a common allergen, usually peaks in September.

Weather and time of day. Symptoms of allergies often correlate with the weather and the time of day. Pollen levels are usually highest in the morning. Allergies may be at their worst when days are warm and nights are cool. Rain washes away pollen, but the effect doesn't last long. Windless days are usually good for those with allergies because there are fewer particles in the air.

Length of the illness. Most colds disappear in around 10 days, although some may persist for a full two weeks. It's possible for a cold to be gone in as little as three days. Allergies last as long as the allergen hangs around, which can be several weeks or even months.

Should you treat your child's cold or allergies?

You can treat both allergies and colds at home with mostly natural remedies. It's best not to give medicines for cold symptoms, even over-the-counter drugs, without asking your child's doctor. There is little proof that they work, and they can have side effects.

Deciding when to call the doctor can be a tough parenting decision. Of course, you should talk to your child's doctor if you see any signs of a more serious illness. You should watch for symptoms of asthma. Look for:

If your child's symptoms last a long time, the doctor may suggest that your child be tested for allergies.

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Medically Reviewed on 8/18/2021

American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: "Seasonal Allergies," "What Are Allergic Shiners?"

Children's Health: "Allergies vs. colds in children."

St. Louis Children's Hospital: "Allergies Vs. the Common Cold."

Geisinger: "Cold vs allergies: What’s the difference?"

T?he Iowa Clinic: "Cold or Allergies: Which is Behind Your Sneeze?"

Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital: "A Cold or Allergies: Which Is It?"

Journal of the American Medical Association: "The 'Nasal Crease': A Physical Sign of Allergic Rhinitis."

University of Rochester Medical Center: "What the Inside of Your Nose Reveals."