How to Tell the Difference Between Allergies and a Cold

April showers bring May flowers, which bring pollen—which makes everyone complain about their allergies. But before you reflexively blame Mother Nature, you should know that allergies often feel very similar to garden-variety colds: Although an allergy is an immune response and a cold is a viral infection, the two share symptoms. We asked a pair of experts to help sort out what’s making you miserable—and how to find some relief.

Timing

Cold: While cold viruses exist year-round, you’re most likely to catch one during the fall and winter, when you’re stuck indoors breathing recirculated air, says Denise Pate, MD, internal medicine physician at the Medical Offices of Manhattan. These viruses also replicate better in low temperatures.

Allergies: Symptoms occur seasonally, when pollen is present to trigger reactions in the body. Trees usually start pollinating in the spring, grass in the summer and ragweed in the fall. “If you remember having the same symptoms this time last year, that’s a good indicator of an allergy,” says Janna Tuck, MD, a spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology who’s based in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

Duration

Cold: Your immune system attacks a cold with white blood cells and makes antibodies to neutralize it, a process that usually takes five to ten days.

Allergies: Allergies can persist for at least as long as you’re exposed to their trigger, which could be days but is more often weeks or even until the season ends.

Nasal Passages

Cold: Your nose is stuffy and may leak a yellowish discharge. Try an over-the-counter (OTC) decongestant, but only for three to five days—any longer may have a rebound effect that makes you even more congested.

Allergies: Congestion and clear discharge are common. Tuck suggests rinsing your nose with saline using a neti pot, a squeeze bottle or a nasal mist. OTC antihistamines and steroidal nasal sprays can also relieve symptoms.

Body

Cold: Colds can bring on allover achiness and a low-grade fever. Ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help lower your temperature and relieve pain.

Allergies: Allergies don’t cause body aches.

Throat

Cold: It may hurt when you talk or swallow. Try a soothing cough drop; if the pain is severe, get tested for strep throat, which requires antibiotics.

Allergies: Your throat may be scratchy or mildly irritated, but the feeling shouldn’t be agonizing.

Energy Level

Cold: Colds wipe you out because your immune system is working hard to fight them. Plus, a stuffy nose and persistent cough can disrupt your sleep.

Allergies: Dealing with allergy symptoms can also take a lot out of you.

Eyes

Cold: In addition to feeling tired, your eyes may be watery or, conversely, dry and irritated. Some colds also cause conjunctivitis.

Allergies: Itchy, red, watery eyes are a classic sign of seasonal allergies. OTC eye drops will be your peepers’ best friend—at least until winter.