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How can I tell a cold from allergies in my child?

Answered on 11th January 2016

An allergic reaction can sometimes seem like a cold, due to symptoms like sneezing, runny nose and coughing. That’s because the body responds to both colds and allergies by releasing chemicals (called histamines) that can cause these symptoms. In the case of a cold, the immune system is fighting the virus.

With allergies, the body overreacts to a harmless substance, called an allergen. When your child first comes into contact with an allergen, their body fights the allergen by producing antibodies. The next time your child comes into contact with the allergen, the body recognises it and releases chemicals such as histamine, which causes the physical symptoms.

Some symptoms commonly occur with an allergy and not with a cold, and vice versa. Look for these differences:

Cold Allergy
Slow onset of symptoms (about three days) Immediate appearance of symptoms after exposure to the allergen
Symptoms typically last up to 14 days Symptoms can last from a few hours, days or years, as long as your are exposed to the allergen
Often a sore throat Itchy, watery eyes are often a symptom of an allergy
Possible Runny nose with yellow mucus Possible Runny nose with clear mucus


Allergies may run in families and can be asthma- and eczema-related. It is uncommon for children under seven years to have seasonal allergies, and only about 8% of children have food allergies.

If you think your child has an allergy, speak to your doctor. Try to keep track of your child’s symptoms, when and how often they happen, and if anything seems to trigger them.

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