How to tell if a sore throat is from an allergy or a cold

Pain, irritation, scratchiness, and swelling are common symptoms of a sore throat. Allergies, common colds, the flu, and other respiratory infections can all cause a sore throat.

Knowing what has caused a sore throat allows a person to treat it more effectively. Sore throats due to allergies, colds, and the flu generally respond well to home treatment. However, when someone has mononucleosis, tonsillitis, or a more severe case of the flu, a sore throat may require medication.

In this article, we describe how to tell whether a sore throat is due to an allergy (which is not an infection) or a viral upper respiratory infection, such as the common cold or the flu. We also cover the treatment and prevention of allergy symptoms and when to see a doctor.

Allergy vs. cold

Colds, allergies, and the flu can all cause a sore throat.

Many conditions can cause a sore throat, including common colds, the flu, and allergies, such as hay fever.

Taking note of other symptoms that appear along with a sore throat can help people get a better idea of the underlying cause.

Symptoms common to both colds and allergies include:

a runny or stuffy nose

fatigue

coughing and sneezing

Symptoms of colds, the flu, and infections:

fevers can occur with colds and the flu but not with allergies

muscle and body aches do not usually occur with allergies

swollen lymph nodes in the neck region typically indicate an infection not an allergy

Symptoms of allergies include:

itchy, watery eyes are common symptoms of allergies, but not of colds or the flu

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An important clue to whether the cause is a cold, flu, or an allergy is how long the sore throat lasts. Colds and the flu do not usually last longer than 2 weeks.

However, allergies can last for as long as a person remains exposed to the allergen. For people with hay fever, allergy symptoms may last for around 6 weeks during pollen seasons.

Some people with hay fever may develop oral allergy syndrome after eating certain foods. Raw fruits, vegetables, and some tree nuts contain proteins that are similar to the pollens that trigger hay fever symptoms.

Oral allergy syndrome can cause:

an itchy mouth

a scratchy, irritated throat

redness and swelling of the lips and mouth

general hay fever symptoms

People who experience a sore throat or other symptoms after eating raw fruits or vegetables should speak to a doctor or allergist.

Allergies are very common. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology, more than 50 million people in the United States have some type of allergy.

Research reveals that 15% of people in the U.S. have received a diagnosis of allergic rhinitis from their doctor, and up to 30% of the population have self-reported that they have nasal allergy symptoms.

Allergy treatment

Treatment of allergies depends on the severity of the symptoms. People with milder symptoms may be able to treat themselves using over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamines, decongestants, and nasal steroid sprays.

A doctor can provide prescriptions for medications for people with more severe allergy symptoms. Sometimes, doctors may also recommend immunotherapy, such as allergy shots.

Immunotherapy involves a series of treatments where an allergist gradually exposes a person to increasing amounts of an allergen. Over time, this desensitizes the person and reduces their allergic response to the allergen.

Many people use alternative therapies to treat allergies. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), the following treatments may help to relieve allergy symptoms:

saline nasal irrigation

acupuncture

probiotics

some herbal remedies, such as butterbur

Home remedies may also help to relieve discomfort from sore throats.

Home remedies include:

sucking on ice chips or frozen fruit juices

drinking hot tea with honey

gargling with salt water several times a day

using OTC pain relievers

Allergy prevention tips

A person should keep windows closed during pollen seasons.

Avoiding allergens is the best way to prevent upper respiratory allergy symptoms, such as sore throats. However, total avoidance is not always possible or practical.

Common allergens include:

grass and tree pollen

pet or animal dander

mold spores

dust mites

Some general tips to reduce exposure to allergens include:

keeping windows closed during pollen seasons

staying indoors if possible when the pollen count is high

wearing sunglasses outside to protect the eyes from pollen

showering and changing clothes after spending time outside during pollen seasons

avoiding foods that trigger symptoms

using dust-proof covers on furniture and bedding to reduce exposure to dust mites

using a dehumidifier and cleaning bathrooms and kitchens frequently to reduce mold exposure

washing hands immediately after petting dogs and cats to reduce exposure to pet dander

washing pets frequently to reduce dander buildup

When to see a doctor

A person can often use home remedies to treat sore throats and allergies. However, speak to a doctor if symptoms are severe or do not improve with OTC medications and allergen avoidance strategies.

A person with a sore throat should see a doctor if it lasts for more than a week or two or if

they experience any of the following symptoms:

difficulty breathing or swallowing

high fever

blood in saliva

swelling or lumps in the face or neck

Doctors can also arrange for skin prick tests or blood tests to determine which allergen is triggering a person’s symptoms.

Summary

Sore throats can be a symptom of several different conditions, including allergies, common colds, the flu, and other viral and bacterial infections. Because allergies can cause cold-like symptoms, some people may find it difficult to work out whether their sore throat is due to an allergy or something else.

One of the telltale symptoms of seasonal allergies is having itchy, watery eyes. Also, common colds and the flu rarely last longer 2 weeks, but allergy symptoms can sometimes last for 6 weeks or more.

People can usually treat allergy symptoms, such as sore throats, with self-care and OTC medications. However, see a doctor if symptoms are severe or do not respond to home treatments.

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