Is it a common cold or an allergy?

Posted on July 4th, 2018

Is your child’s sniffles a sign of a common cold or an allergy? We asked expert allergist, Dr Adrian Morris to explain the main differences between the two. By Tammy Jacks

Is it a common cold or an allergy?

It can be tricky to distinguish between a common cold and an allergy, because they both share similar symptoms such as a runny nose, sore throat and sneezing, says Dr Morris. However, if you pay close attention to your child and know what to look out for, you’ll be able to identify and diagnose the problem.

What is a cold?

Also known as an upper respiratory tract infection, the common cold is often caused by a virus and is one of the main reasons behind most GP visits. In fact, studies have shown that children are sick with a cold at least six to 10 times a year. This is due to an immature immune system, seasonal changes and the fact that children don’t always practise good hygiene habits such as hand washing or coughing and sneezing with their hands in front of their mouths.

ALSO SEE: Top secrets from parents whose kids rarely get colds and flu in winter

Signs and symptoms of a common cold

Symptoms appear suddenly and last for around seven to 10 days:

  • A sore throat
  • A low to moderate fever
  • Coughing that starts after a postnasal drip
  • Thick green or yellow mucus (the classic sign of an infection)
  • Body aches and pains including headaches
  • A reduced appetite

What to do if your child has a cold

According to the Johns Hopkins Medicine faculty, although there’s no specific cure for the common cold, you can ease your child’s symptoms and help him feel better by ensuring he stays hydrated, let him gargle with salt water as it’s a powerful antiseptic solution and keep the air in his room moist with a humidifier as the cold virus spreads more easily in cold, dry conditions.

ALSO SEE: When to make a doctor’s appointment and when a pharmacist will do

What is an allergy?

An allergy normally arises by the time your child is six years old and can flare up at specific times of the year.  If a child is allergic to something, his immune system will overreact to a substance in the environment, such as pollen or grass. As a result, he’ll start sneezing or coughing and have a runny nose or start itching as soon he spends time outdoors. If your child reacts to indoor allergies such as dog or cat hair, dust mites or mould, he might have more congestion and less of a runny nose.

Food allergies

Children can also be sensitive to certain foods such as cow’s milk, eggs, nuts, wheat and soya. “In the past, it was common for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers to avoid these foods as long as possible,” says Dr Morris. However, new studies have shown that exposing your little one to small amounts of these foods, through breast milk, for example, might help to induce a tolerance to them later on, he says.

Click here for more information on food allergies and weaning.

Signs and symptoms of an allergy

Symptoms flare up seasonally and last for more than a week:

  • A runny nose
  • Inflammation in the throat
  • Swollen, itchy or red eyes
  • Persistent sneezing
  • Clear mucus
  • Skin irritations including eczema

ALSO SEE: How to treat excessive mucus in your child

What to do if you think your child has an allergy

If you suspect your child might have a food allergy or be reacting to something in the environment, speak to your paediatrician or see an allergist who can perform a skin prick test or take a blood sample, from when your child is four months old.