Does My Child Have a Cold or Allergies?

Boy blowing nose

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If your child is coughing, sneezing, and has a runny nose for several weeks, but doesn't have a fever and otherwise seems well, do they just have a cold or could it be allergies?

If you're more likely to think allergies in the spring and cold during those back to school months, you might be wrong. Although most people think of spring as the allergy season, depending on what your child's allergic to, autumn can be just as bad.

Symptom Overlap

Allergies and a cold are not treated the same, so it's important to know exactly what's behind your child's symptoms.

The problem is that the two conditions have similar symptoms, making them easy to confuse.

Symptoms of both a cold and allergies include:

  • A runny nose
  • Cough
  • Itchy throat
  • Sneezing
  • Watery eyes

Differentiating Features to Look For

Paying attention to the following characteristics of these symptoms, as well as what accompanies them, can help you differentiate whether they are due to a cold virus or allergies.

Color of Nasal Discharge

Although a​ runny nose from a cold will start off being clear, it often turns yellow or green after three to five days.

Children with allergies will continue to have just a clear runny nose.

Effect of Weather Changes

If your child's symptoms change with the weather, it's probably allergies.

For example, ragweed counts usually decrease after heavy rain. If your child's symptoms improve after it rains, they might be allergic to ragweed.

Or if their symptoms are worse on days that are windy, that might also indicate an allergy since pollen counts are often higher on windy days.

How Well Others Feel

A cold virus can hitch a ride in saliva and mucus that gets expelled when someone sneezes, coughs, or even just talks. It can also land on surfaces and live there for several hours, meaning touching things like door knobs or remote controls (and touching the nose, eyes, or mouth) can get someone sick.

Given this and the close contact that is inevitable when sharing a home, it's likely that if your child has a cold, other family members are sick too.

If no one else at home is ill, that is a good sign allergies are to blame. However, it's possible that everyone with symptoms has allergies and is allergic to the same things (e.g., dust or pet dander).

Facial Changes

Children with allergies often have dark circles under their eyes. This is due to congestion of small blood vessels below the skin in that area, which is very thin and, therefore, more translucent than other skin.

While this can also occur with a cold, it's very common with allergies—so much so that this discoloration has been dubbed "allergic shiners."

A child with allergies might also push their nose up so frequently when itching it that they develop a small crease near the bottom of their nose. Inside, the nasal tissue will often be pale and swollen.

In contrast, the inside of the nose of a child with a cold will usually be red and inflamed.

Tips to Avoid Allergy Symptoms

You can take precautions against allergy symptoms by following a few simple guidelines:

  • Since the pollen count peaks in the late morning and early afternoon (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.), keep your child indoors at this time.
  • Keep the windows of your house and car closed to minimize your child's exposure to allergens (things they are allergic to), check pollen counts, and don't let your child outside when people are mowing their lawns.
  • Allergy testing might also help if you aren't sure what is triggering your child's allergy symptoms. If the test reveals an allergy to ragweed, then you won't be surprised when they begin getting allergy symptoms when the ragweed counts are high.

If your child has allergy symptoms, there are many prescription and over-the-counter medications available that can help. OTC options include antihistamine nasal sprays (such as the steroid-free Astepro) or pills (such as Claritin). Contact your child's doctor to determine the best medication to treat their symptoms.

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Article Sources
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  1. American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Seasonal Allergies. Updated December 28, 2017.

  2. Cleveland Clinic. Suspect Your Sniffling Child Has Seasonal Allergies? Look for This Sign. Published July 7, 2020.

  3. Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America New England Chapter. Ragweed allergy.

  4. Mayo Clinic. Cold and flu viruses: How long can they live outside the body? February 5, 2020.

  5. American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. What are Allergic Shiners?.

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