Summer Colds or Summer Allergies: What’s the Difference?

Fact checked by Megan Soliman MD, MSc
Board-certified physician at Saba University School of Medicine

You can’t stop sneezing, your nose is itchy, and you have a sore throat: could it be a summer cold or do you have allergies? Let’s find out how to tell them apart and what you can do to prevent getting sick in summer.

Is it a summer cold or allergies?

It is very easy to confuse a summer cold with seasonal allergies — after all, they have similar symptoms! But even though both can make you sneeze and cough, they are triggered by different things.

Allergies manifest after exposure to allergens like dust, tree, or grass pollen. When they get in your airways, they trigger an itchy, runny nose, congestion, and tickling at the back of your throat. If you have allergies, you usually develop symptoms soon after coming into contact with whatever you’re allergic to. Allergy symptoms usually remain the same unless you limit your exposure to the triggering allergens. Colds, however, are caused by viruses, and they start slowly, with symptoms getting progressively more severe.

A woman in a hotel room with symptoms of a summer cold or allergies

With plenty of rest and taking cold remedies, a cold can clear up after 7–10 days, sometimes sooner. Allergy symptoms, though, will persist as long as you are exposed to allergens that trigger them. But you can relieve these symptoms with antihistamines, nasal steroid sprays, and decongestants.

So if the itching and sneezing start after you spend time outside and stop after you take an antihistamine and stay indoors, it’s a pretty good sign you have a seasonal allergy. Make an appointment with your doctor if you want to know what you are allergic to and how you can manage your symptoms.

Summer cold vs seasonal allergies: timing is key

Do you develop cold symptoms around the same time every year? Well, you may be dealing with seasonal allergies. You can get a cold any time throughout the year, but they are not cyclical and they don’t just suddenly start in any particular month.

Summer allergies, on the other hand, are caused by airborne allergens such as tree and grass pollen.

The plants that release them bloom around the same time each year, so your symptoms will develop when the pollen count is on the rise. WeatherWell can help you better understand your triggers and take control of your summer allergies — you can track your symptoms and get personalized health insights based on the factors that may affect them.

How long your symptoms last is also a big clue. A seasonal allergy can last several weeks — or as long as you’re exposed to the triggering allergens, while a summer cold usually goes away within a week.

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Signs of a summer cold

Although common colds are more frequent in fall and winter, you may still get them in the summer months. A summer cold is caused by a viral respiratory infection that affects your upper respiratory tract, namely your nose and throat. Common signs of a summer cold are:

  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Nasal congestion
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle ache
  • Fatigue

Although allergies can also cause a runny nose and congestion, you may see the difference in your mucus. If you have a cold you may get a thick yellow or greenish mucus, which doesn't happen with seasonal allergies. If you’re concerned about your symptoms or if they are getting worse as time goes by, reach out to your healthcare provider. Regular checkups can help catch early signs of an illness and improve your overall health.

A handy infographic to help distinguish symptoms of summer colds or allergies
Check your symptoms to see if you have a summer cold or allergies

Are summer colds contagious?

A summer cold is caused by a virus, and most viruses are contagious. They are easily transmitted through tiny droplets that get in the air or on surfaces when a sick person sneezes, coughs, or talks. For example, if you sneeze while covering your mouth with your hand and then touch a handrail on a bus, you help the virus to spread — when someone else touches this rail and then rubs their face they can become infected.

People usually become more contagious when their symptoms are more pronounced. In winter, the colds spread easier because we tend to spend more time indoors in close contact with others. But summer colds are also pretty common; your risk of catching a cold in summer is higher if you are:

  • Spending a lot of time in public places in close contact with others, for example, in an office;
  • Not washing your hands regularly;
  • Having a weak immune system due to stress, lack of sleep, or a chronic illness.
A man with a sore throat as one of the signs of a summer cold

Can a sore throat be a sign of summer allergies?

Yes! Although you may not associate seasonal allergies with a dry, scratchy throat, sometimes they can cause a sore throat, along with other common symptoms. It’s part of how your body reacts after being exposed to specific allergens.

When you come into contact with something you’re allergic to, your immune system attacks this foreign “invader” trying to protect you.

As part of this response, your body starts to produce a lot of extra mucus to get this unwanted guest out of your system. As a result, you get a runny nose, which can cause post-nasal drip, when the mucus trickles down the back of your throat. This can trigger irritation and inflammation in your throat.

But when your sore throat makes it hard for you to swallow and you develop a fever, you’re probably dealing with a cold. Another sign that your sore throat can be caused by a summer cold or other viral infection is if your allergy medication doesn’t seem to help.

How to prevent summer colds

Unfortunately, there is no surefire way to completely avoid getting a cold, be it in summer or winter. But you can take several steps to lower your chance of getting sick in any season:

  • Support your immune system by eating a balanced diet, having regular exercise, reducing stress, and getting plenty of sleep.
  • Frequently wash your hands, especially before cooking, eating, or touching the face. Make sure to wash your hands after being in public places or being in contact with people who might be sick.
  • Cough or sneeze into a tissue or the crook of your elbow, instead of your hand. It can stop the spread of viruses and bacteria.
  • Avoid people who have a cold.
  • Disinfect surfaces that may come into contact with viruses and bacteria. Especially if you touch them a lot like your phone.
  • Stay at home if you start developing cold symptoms.

Another trigger of summer colds is air conditioning. While it is a real blessing in the heat, it can also create an ideal environment for viruses to spread. The cold, dry air can also irritate your throat and dry out your sinuses, making you more susceptible to infections. Not to mention the drastic change in temperature when you come in from the boiling heat into an air-conditioned room. Of course, we don’t suggest you stop using air conditioning altogether, but keep it at a consistently moderate temperature and use a humidifier to bring the moisture level in your home back to a comfortable level. Getting an air purifier can also help clean the air and reduce your exposure to viruses and allergens, so it can improve allergy symptoms too.

Final thoughts

Summer colds and allergies can be difficult to tell apart since they have similar symptoms. The first thing you need to do is pay attention to when you develop the symptoms. If you get a runny nose and a cough around the same time each year, you’re likely dealing with seasonal allergies. If your symptoms improve after staying indoors and taking antihistamines, it’s also a telltale sign you have a summer allergy.

The duration of your symptoms can also tell you if you have a summer cold or allergies. With a cold, you usually start feeling better within a week, but allergy symptoms will remain the same as long as you’re exposed to whatever is causing them. Check the pollen count and track your symptoms every day — WeatherWell can help you with that — to better understand what’s causing your symptoms.

October 4, 2022