Differences between alergic rhintis and cold

Differences between alergic rhintis and cold 1920 1280 Federico de la Roca Pinzón

When we have congestion, runny nose and sneezing, most of us think we are facing a cold. But what about those people who have allergic rhinitis? In them nasal congestion and sneezing are very frequent symptoms. How can a person with allergic rhinitis differentiate the symptoms of a cold from those of rhinitis? In this post we try to answer this and other questions related to allergic rhinitis and cold.

What is rhinitis?

If we look for the definition of rhinitis we will find that it is inflammation of the nasal mucosa, which is usually accompanied by nasal discharge, congestion and sneezing. As you can see, any of these symptoms can occur in the cold as in allergic rhinitis. Therefore, what at first glance seems to be a very simple distinction in non-allergic people, the differentiation is more complex in those who suffer from allergic rhinitis and catch a cold (something very common in the autumn and winter months).

What is cold?

If we also review the different types of rhinitis we find that the common cold is also a type of rhinitis, an acute infectious rhinitis. Therefore, neither the definition of rhinitis nor its classification help us to solve a very frequent question in allergology consultations: I don’t know if what I have is rhinitis or a cold?

How to differentiate cold symptoms from those of allergic rhinitis?

Despite the fact that, as we have seen, the symptoms are very similar, there are small differences that can be helpful in distinguishing a cold from allergic rhinitis:


  • Mucous/thick nasal discharge.
  • Yellow or green discharge.
  • It can associate fever and malaise.
  • Sometimes it can be accompanied by a headache.
  • Sore throat and cough with expectoration may also appear.
  • It usually requires 5 to 10 days for recovery.


  • Runny nose.
  • White or clear discharge.
  • It is NOT associated with fever or malaise.
  • Sometimes it can be accompanied by itchy nose and eyes.
  • Sometimes there is itchy throat or a feeling of mucus in the throat
  • Symptoms may subside in less than 24 hours.

And if you can’t tell a cold from allergic rhinitis, what can I do?

If, despite the differences listed above, it is not  possible to  distinguish whether it is an allergic rhinitis or a cold, can I take my allergy medication, even if it is a cold? The answer is yes. Anti-allergic medication, nasal corticosteroids and oral antihistamines, can be taken in case of a cold. In fact, many flu medicines contain antihistamines, although usually in the middle of the usual dose. In addition, if we remember, the cold is a type of rhinitis, so inflammation of the nasal mucosa, even if it is of infectious origin, can be treated with nasal corticosteroids.

The problem could occur in the continued use of oral antihistamines in the case of a cold instead of allergic rhinitis. A good time to stop taking antihistamines is the presence of thick, yellow or green nasal secretions. These secretions respond better to nasal washes or mucolytic than to antihistamines.

What precautions can I take not to catch a cold?

There is no specific precaution to avoid colds. But as it is an infection of viral origin, it is recommended:

  • Frequent hand washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, hydroalcoholic gel can be used if it contains at least 60% alcohol.
  • Avoid touching your face, eyes, nose or mouth with dirty hands.
  • Frequently clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces (mobile devices, keyboards, doorknobs, etc.).
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has symptoms suggestive of a cold.
  • If you have a cold or think you have a cold, cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough. Use tissues and throw them away immediately after use. Whenever you have contact with secretions you should wash your hands.
  • Currently the use of masks is increasingly common. Surgical masks can prevent transmission from a cold person. If you have a cold you can use this type of mask and you will protect those around you.

If I am allergic and catching a cold, what precautions should I take?

Cold symptoms in allergic people can be more intense and if not controlled can be complicated by sinusitis or trigger bronchial symptoms such as shortness of breath, choking sensation or wheezing. The recommendations to avoid these complications are:

  • If nasal congestion is important, intense nasal washes can be performed morning and night.
  • Make use of nasal corticosteroids according to the usual guideline prescribed by your allergology specialist.
  • Avoid taking oral antihistamines.
  • If you are asthmatic, you should monitor for any exacerbation of asthma. If you have bronchial symptoms you should return to your usual inhaler and perform it according to the guideline prescribed by your allergology specialist. If you are already being treated with an inhaler you can double the dose until it is evaluated by a physician.
  • If the nasal symptoms last for more than 10 days, associate high fever or difficulty breathing despite the use of a bronchial inhaler you should go to a medical evaluation.

At ClinicAL we hope to have responded to a very common situation in these cold months where colds are very frequent and their complications can be very important in patients with allergic rhinitis.

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Dr Federico de la Roca Pinzón
Especialista en Alergología.