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Allergy or Cold?

Detective work is needed to distinguish between allergies and the common cold

Allergy or Cold?
June 2013

Deciphering whether your child has a cold or suffers from allergies can be difficult because the symptoms often overlap. It's important to sort them out so you know how to best treat your child and know when a visit to the pediatrician may be in order.

Allergies develop over time so the younger your child, the less likely that allergies are the culprit. Children rarely develop seasonal allergies (to things such as tree pollen, weeds or grass) prior to age three. Allergies to pets, house dust mites and indoor mold can be seen in children as young as one. Allergies tend to run in families so it's worth noting if a parent or sibling suffers as well. 

Colds generally don't last as long as allergies. If the symptoms get better, it's likely a cold. Colds are contagious and are brought on when an infected person touches you, coughs or sneezes. This chart may help sort out whether it's the common cold or whether allergies may be at play. 


There is no cure for either a cold or allergies, but you can effectively treat the symptoms of both. A cold will have to run its course. Antibiotics will not treat colds. The best treatment includes plenty of rest and fluids. Since a cold is contagious, you should keep a sick child home until the symptoms have cleared. To help your child feel better, you can give him an over-the-counter medication. 

With allergies, the immune system is trying to ward off what it views as harmful invaders – prompting the body to release histamine which prompts watery eyes, a runny nose and sneezing. Treatment for allergies can often be addressed with an over-the-counter antihistamine and a decongestant. Nasal steroid sprays work very well and are available by prescription. If you can identify the specific allergic triggers, avoidance techniques – such as keeping pets out of your child's room – may help. You may want to discuss these things with your child's doctor. Some pediatricians may refer a child to an allergist – who will take a detailed history and then likely conduct a skin test to check for sensitivities to possible allergens. Skin tests are generally more reliable and are less expensive than performing a blood test.

To view daily pollen counts, visit my website at www.pediatricallergyindy.com. You can post your questions to me at my website or on my Facebook page at www.facebook.com/DrLeickly.

Fred Leickly, M.D., is the director of pediatric allergy clinical services at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health.

Tags: In This Issue, Parenting, Pediatric Health

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