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Michelle De Sousa

As the temperature drops and winter creeps in, sneezing isn’t uncommon. In fact, the majority of us will suffer through at least two colds during the season. Some unlucky few will also get hit with a bout of the flu. And others still will suffer from unrelenting allergies. But which one is causing your sniffles? Do you know? It can be tough to make the distinction among a cold, allergies, and the flu. After all, their signs and symptoms are all quite similar: stuffy nose, sneezing, and an overall under-the-weather feeling.

But understanding what’s making you ill can help you get proper treatment. You can reduce the symptoms of a cold, for example, with cold pills. For a flu, you need plenty of water and rest. And allergies require different types of medications, such as allergy eye drops, nasal spray, and allergy pills.

So, to ensure that you’re treating the symptoms of the correct ailment, here’s what you need to know about the differences among a cold, allergies, and the flu.


An allergy is an abnormal and excessive reaction that occurs when your body comes in contact with a foreign substance. The substance is usually harmless, but the body interprets it as threatening. Varying symptoms can occur, including asthma, hives, eczema, rhinitis, conjunctivitis, food sensitivity, etc. Allergies can come from pollen and grass, mold, dust, animals, perfume, foods, and many other things.

Allergy rhinitis is most often confused for a cold or flu because it includes similar symptoms, including sneezing, a runny nose, a stuffy nose, and itchy eyes. An itchy throat or nose, watery eyes, a dry cough, a burning sensation in the eyes, and a reduced sense of smell can also occur. However, allergy rhinitis does have some unique differentiations that can help you tell it apart from a cold or a flu, as long as you can recognize them.

For one, unlike a flu or cold, there are no muscle aches associated with allergies. Headaches are also quite rare. Most importantly though, the symptoms don’t last for a specific amount of time like a cold or flu, which tend to last for five to seven days. Rather, they disappear once the allergen is removed. If symptoms occur anytime you’re around a cat but disappear once you’re out of the environment, then you likely have a dander allergy and not a cold or flu.

Treatment for allergies can include antihistamines, nasal steroids, and decongestants; avoidance is the best way to prevent allergies.


When you have a cold, you’ll have many of the same symptoms that you’d have if you had allergies, such as a stuffy, runny nose, sneezing fits, a cough, and watery eyes. However, a cold typically also creates slight aches and pains. It can also come with some fatigue and weakness, a sore throat, and mild to moderate chest discomfort.

A cold will have to run its course for about a week. In the meantime, get plenty of rest, use decongestants, and take Aspirin for aches and pains.


You’ll feel the most run own and ill if you have a flu. The flu is typically associated with a high fever (100-102 °F), a headache, more severe aches and pains, and fatigue and weakness that can last up to three weeks. Extreme exhaustion can occur in the beginning stages of the flu. A stuffy, runny nose, sneezing, and a sore throat can occur, but these symptoms aren’t always present. Chest discomfort and a severe cough is also common. Some flus are also associated with vomiting and diarrhea.

Flus will also need to run their course. Get plenty of rest, stay hydrated, and take Aspirin for aches and pains. If symptoms don’t improve, you may need to see your doctor for anti-viral medicines. Getting a flu shot is a great way to prevent getting the flu as well.

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Michelle De Sousa

Michelle is the Client Solutions Manager at HMA Benefits. She has 19 years of experience within the insurance industry, and has worked in claims management and client service. Her work has helped her hone an amazing attention to detail, which she uses to experiment with recipes and cooking styles in her free time.
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