Originally published on Web MD
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on August 13, 2014

It’s a question that puzzles a lot of people when those familiar symptoms hit: Is all that coughing and sneezing from a cold or hay fever?

It’s sometimes a tough call, but how long your problems last is one of the big clues.

What Are Colds and Allergies?
They have different causes. You get a cold when a tiny living thing called a virus gets into your body. There are hundreds of different types that can get you sick.

Once a cold virus gets inside you, your immune system, the body’s defense against germs, launches a counter-attack. It’s this response that brings on the classic symptoms like a cough or stuffed up nose.

The viruses that cause colds are contagious. You can pick them up when someone who’s infected sneezes, coughs, or shakes hands with you. After a couple of weeks, at the most, your immune system fights off the illness and you should stop having symptoms.

It’s a different story with allergies. They’re caused by an overactive immune system. For some reason, your body mistakes harmless things, such as dust or pollen, for germs and attacks them.

When that happens, your body releases chemicals such as histamine, just as it does when fighting a cold. This can cause a swelling in the passageways of your nose, and you’ll start sneezing and coughing.

Unlike colds, allergies aren’t contagious, though some people may inherit a tendency to get them. Allergy symptoms can also persist longer than those of a flu or cold. There are two paths to take to find out if you are having an allergic reaction and what might be causing the allergy. First you can visit your doctor, who might refer you to a specialist, to test you for allergies. The other way that you can go is to test your home or office environment for known allergens. These can include pollen, fibers, dust mites, mold, and more!

Once you know your sensitivities and your environment, then you can create a plan to manage both.

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