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