What’s the Difference Between Cold, Flu and Allergies?

The different illnesses that run rampant this time of year make any public space a danger zone. Don’t touch the shopping cart, do sanitize your work space, and wash your hands often – avoidance is key. But knowing what you, and those around you, are sick with can help you fight back and know your next steps.

The big offenders right now are the common cold, the flu, and environmental allergies, and many of the symptoms overlap, making it difficult to determine what you’re sick with. Learn the differences below.


The common cold is caused by a virus and is spread through contact with an infected person. This can be direct contact like sharing a drink, but can also spread by touching an object that was sneezed or coughed on by an infected person – and so on. Symptoms typically appear three days after exposure.

Symptoms unique to the common cold:

  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Cough
  • Yellow or green mucus

The common cold lasts about three to five days. There’s no real treatment for a cold, so rest, hydration, and symptom relievers – like pain reliever and cough drops – can help you power through.

Watch your symptoms! Ear, sinus, and respiratory infections are common after battling the common cold. If your symptoms extend past five days or become more severe as time goes on, check in with your physician.


Like a cold, influenza or the flu is also a virus that’s caused by contact, most typically when someone who is infected coughs or sneezes near someone else. Symptoms appear suddenly, and can last for one to two weeks. The flu vaccine can be helpful in preventing the spread of the virus.

Symptoms unique to the flu:

  • Aches and exhaustion
  • High temperature
  • Headache
  • Yellow mucus

Because it’s a virus, there isn’t a universal treatment for the flu. Over-the-counter symptom relievers may help, and your provider can also prescribe an antiviral drug that you should begin within two days of becoming sick.

Stay hydrated and rested, and monitor your symptoms. Be in contact with your provider if you experience any additional symptoms to avoid  developing pneumonia, a common complication of the flu.


Allergies take a different route – they’re not contagious. When exposed to allergens, your body can determine them to be harmful and react, causing cold and flu-like symptoms. During winter months, people tend to react to indoor allergens like pet dander, dust mites, and mold.  For those in and around Texas, mountain cedar allergy can also cause strong symptoms.

Symptoms unique to allergies:

  • Itchy eyes, nose, throat
  • Sneezing
  • NO fever, aches, or exhaustion
  • Clear mucus

With indoor allergens, it’s difficult to avoid exposure and the symptoms that follow. This means symptoms can last from weeks to months, or as long as you are around the allergen. You can try to control your environment by cleaning and eliminating allergen-magnets like carpet and upholstery, as well as take antihistamines to tame symptoms as tolerance is built.

Additionally, there is immunotherapy – a disease modifying treatment – that can prevent allergy symptoms for winter seasons to come. Allergy drops are a convenient immunotherapy option that help your body slowly build tolerance to offending allergens identified through blood or skin testing. With treatment, over time your body can learn to tolerate allergens and reduce or eliminate symptoms.

After a long season of exposure, infection is possible. If your symptoms persist, it may be worth a visit to your provider to either treat or rule out an infection.

That’s a wrap on common winter illnesses. If you suspect allergy, find a provider near you who can help you determine  whether allergy drops are right for you.