The Difference between Colds and Allergies


If a child has cold symptoms that go on and on, is it really allergies? Or is it just one long cold? Or several colds, back-to-back? This is especially difficult in the spring when all the flowers and trees are in bloom. Are the treatments the same? Either way the symptoms are miserable!!!
Shirley – Mill Valley, California

Dr. Greene's Answer

Let’s begin by considering together the birds and the bees…

Pollen is used by plants to reproduce. Come springtime, many plants dress themselves with beautiful, vibrant flowers in an effort to attract birds and bees. These curious visitors carry the pollen from flower to flower, and magic happens.

Many less flashy plants use a different strategy to reproduce. Grasses, weeds, and trees often make smaller, lighter, grains of pollen and depend on the wind to scatter it widely. This windborne pollen, not that produced by flowers, is responsible for most hayfever symptoms.

During their mating season, some trees pump out millions and millions of grains of pollen each day. On dry days after the spring rains, the pollen count is at its highest — especially on windy days.

The lining of our noses contains tiny guardians called mast cells, whose purpose is to protect us from harmful particles in the air we breathe. People with allergies have hypersensitive mast cells that sound the alert in response to relatively harmless particles such as pollen, dust, or pet dander.

When pollen sticks to the membrane of a mast cell of someone with pollen allergies, the cell begins to swell and swell. Finally the mast cell bursts, spilling histamine and many other potent chemicals into the surrounding tissue. These produce the sneezing, swelling, itching, and congestion associated with allergies.

Parents often ask me whether their children’s constantly runny noses are the result of allergies, sinus infections, or of one cold after another. Allergies typically feature a clear nasal discharge with sneezing. There may be itchy, watery eyes and/or a dry cough. Often parents notice a “rabbit nose” — a child crinkling her nose to relieve the itchy sensation inside. The “allergic salute” — rubbing the nose with the hand, sometimes leaving a horizontal crease on the nose — is another common sign. “Allergic shiners” — dark circles under the eyes — have long been associated with allergies, but are less predictive than the other symptoms. Often there is a family history of allergies.

Colds will often begin with a clear nasal discharge, but after several days it usually turns creamy, yellow, or green for a time. Symptoms typically start suddenly and resolve within 7 to 14 days. Sneezes tend to be more productive, and coughs sound wetter than with allergies. If the eyes are involved, one or both of them usually turn pink, with a discharge that matches that in the nose. A fever may be present. Often people in close contact with the child have similar symptoms.

A sinus infection in a child often begins like a cold but lasts for greater than 10 to 14 days with no period of improvement. Sometimes a sinus infection begins with a high fever (>103 F), facial swelling, or facial pain.

Since children with allergies often get more colds, sinus infections, and ear infections than their counterparts, it can be difficult to tease apart what is going on. The experience of other family members offers a big clue. Allergies often run in families. Eczema and asthma are also more common in allergic families.

What if your child does have allergies?

Walking into a drugstore, you are confronted with an overwhelming display of brightly packaged allergy products, each promising greater allergy relief than its neighbors. Many of these products can actually harm your child and make the effects of allergies even worse. The right choices, however, used in the right ways, can dramatically improve your child’s springtime.

I will guide you through the confusing maze of home allergy treatments for your child.

In the meantime, “gesundheit!”

May 1, 2010
Published on: April 06, 1998
About the Author
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Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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Recent Comments

My son is allergic to antibiotics penicillin and I bought a umcka elderberry brand natural cold and flu medicine I’ve notice after 1 day of using it he was showing a tiny hives and he was scratching. I don’t know what else I can give to my son.

Hi, I have literally been sneezing for 3 months with itchy watery eyes and a nose that wont stop. Clear excretions. I wake up…..sneeze five or 6 times… they have bouts of sneezing. Funny thing, I took a hydrocodone, or tramadol for my back which I do every so often and it stopped … about an hour afterward. I then did it again…….it stopped. As I cannot take these items for these types of symptoms….why do they work? I have no allergies to any plant group but do have a confirmed dust mite allergy… but this is different… I never reacted like this. I am still trying to isolate the culprit…meanwhile what type of substance should I take for this……It gets so bad I cannot even be in public and I need to so that I can work…any suggestions?

Dear sir, am happy to find this page.

I will be grateful if i can get a clue from you as regards my son.

My son is 7 years old and he is always trying to clear his throat,coughing and sneezing almost every morning. Am always treating him with antibiotics,multivitamins and vitamin C. It clears but the next minute its back again. I dont want to give him any more drugs but i dont know what else to do. I will be glad if you can advice me on what next to do. I look forward to your response.

Thank you.


Have you considered some kind of allergy? It could be a food allergy or pollen allergy.

Antibiotics do not help allergies and the side effects can have a negative impact on general health, so unless you know it’s a bacterial infection, don’t use them for this condition.

Best, @MsGreene
Note: I answer a lot of questions on, I am the co-founder of, Dr. Greene’s business partner, but I am a not doctor. Please keep that in mind when reading my comments and replies.

Hi Dr Green
Iam 65 it is 2 month Ihave cough with runny nose wet eays some tims for 2 hours nothings.
some time I have regular. during night build up mocos make nois when iam breathings my doctor give me 2 cours antibiotic not help all cough syrup not help what do you things

Dear Sir,
Hope this massage finds you well..
i would appreciate if you please guide me about my son..
My son 1.5 year has always runny nose , cough and always rubbing their eyes and nose . we used antibiotic for his chest infection last week. after finishing their antibiotic he was feeling well for three days but now again he is going in a same condition. and this time we did not want to use any antibiotic kindly advise..

Thank you..