Just a Cold or An Allergy? How to Diagnose Your Child's Symptoms

Has your toddler been fussing at night? Has your little one been suffering from the sniffles? Wondering if it's cold or an allergy? If so, you aren't alone. With similar initial symptoms, it is common to make a mistake between both. While one is caused by a virus, the other is the handiwork of the immune system. 

Though similar, allergies and cold have several telling differences. You should keep an eye out for these tell-tale signs to help you diagnose allergies in children. Let's first take a look at the key features of both conditions. 

Common Cold 

While it is a frequent irritant in the cooler months, cold is also a very contagious disease. Cold is caused by a virus that jumps from person to person. It is one of the single most common diseases. It is also the cause of the greatest number of days missed at school or work. Your toddler might be quite prone to cold, however, the incidence of cold drops with age.

  • What causes it? Common cold can be caused by over 200 types of viruses. The virus causes an irritation in the nasal lining and upper part of the respiratory system. This often results in the lining of these organs to become inflamed.
  • How is it caused? We can't expect toddlers to maintain our methods of hygiene. Toddlers with cold can spread it to their playmates. Here are some ways how and why cold spreads: 
    • Your toddler has a lower resistance to disease. The immune system develops with age, causing children to be vulnerable when young. 
    • Weather: Wetter and colder months have a higher incidence of the common cold. 
    • Daycare: Children in close contact can spread it to each other. 
    • Dirty hands: Toddlers tend to touch a variety of surfaces and then touch their eyes, nose or mouth. This is a common way for germs to spread. 
  • How can I tell? Common cold has many tell-tale symptoms. Watch out for these- 
    • Runny nose
    • Congestion in the nose
    • Trouble sleeping 
    • Fussiness 
    • Sneezing
    • Vomiting & diarrhea (rarely) 
    • Low-grade fever (up to 101° F) 

The diagnosis for common colds is symptomatic. Cold symptoms, however, are similar to bacterial infections and allergies. 

  • Treatment for cold: Though it's one of the most common diseases, the common cold has no cure. Most toddlers fight off the cold themselves. Since cold is a viral disease, antibiotics are of no effect. This doesn't mean you can't make it bearable for your toddler. There are several home remedies and purchasable products to help your child. 
    • Ample fluid intake, including warm soup. 
    • Keep your child away from potential irritants like tobacco smoke that can make the cold worse.  
    • Use a nasal saline spray to help ease the congestion. 
    • Never give your toddler over-the-counter medication like aspirin. Be sure to contact the pediatrician.
    • Make sure the child is well-rested.
    • You could use an air humidifier to make breathing easier. 

toddler allergies or cold


If your child has been feeling under the weather with sniffles, sneezes or rashes, think allergies. Allergies are an over-reacting immune system responding to a harmless substance. Your toddler's immune system mistakes the substance to be an invader. To combat the invader, the immune system produces several chemicals like antibodies. Histamine, the main culprit behind allergies in children, causes watery eyes, sneezing, and rashes. There are several items in our surroundings that cause allergies. The most common are pollen, pet dander, dust, and some foods. Allergies can also be seasonal. Here are the symptoms of common allergies in toddlers you should watch out for: 

  • Food allergies: Nearly 6 million children have food allergies. Some data suggests they're more common in boys. Your toddler could be allergic to either one or many foods. Common symptoms of food allergy are- 
    • Rash
    • Diarrhoea
    • Belly ache
    • Nausea
    • Wheezing
    • Swelling of the face
    • Sneezing
    • Swelling of the mouth & tongue
  • Indoor allergies: Dust-mites love to snuggle up to pillows, bedding, and even your toddler's favorite soft toy. All of these objects are potential allergy triggers in your child. Be aware of these indoor allergy symptoms in your toddler- 
    • Sniffles 
    • Sneezing 
    • Wheezing 
    • Runny nose 
  • Pet allergies: Your furry friend could be the reason for your toddler's irritated nose. While being a source of cuddling and comfort, pets can cause allergies too. Be sure to look out if your toddler seems fussy around the pet. Being a type of indoor allergy, the symptoms for pet allergies are the same. 
  • Seasonal allergies: Your toddler's woes might be worse during specific periods like spring. It might be a period of glee and much-awaited outing but can trigger allergies. Here are a few symptoms of seasonal allergies in toddlers you need to know- 
    • Runny and itchy nose 
    • Watery eyes 
    • Sneezing 
    • Congestion
    • Stuffy nose 

allergies in children

How to Tell an Allergy from a Cold  

Despite the similarities in cold and allergies, there are several factors separating them. Before coming to a diagnosis, be sure to be watchful and make note of your toddler's symptoms. Your toddler could be prone to cold or allergies. However, in many non-test diagnoses, false positives may occur. Before you take a call, here are the key differences- 

  • Cold
    • Cloudy, discolored, and thick mucus. 
    • A greater incidence of wet cough 
    • Low-grade fever (up to 101° F)
    • Cold usually resolves within 2 weeks
  • Allergy 
    • Clear and watery mucus 
    • Dry cough 
    • Absence of fever
    • Watery eyes 
    • Allergies take longer to resolve 
  • More information to help you decide
    • Age: Cold is common in toddlers below the age of one. However, seasonal allergies are rare. They only develop once the child begins school. 
    • Family history: In case your family has a history of allergies, your child is more likely to have them. Most allergy-related diseases like asthma develop before the age of six. 
    • Monitoring other toddlers: Your toddler can catch a bug from other toddlers. Be sure to check with the daycare about other children who are ill. 

Though these tidbits help you decide for yourself, be sure to call a doctor when in doubt. A toddler's allergy or cold could also present unusually. The only clear confirmation would be the medical opinion. Allergists are doctors who specialize in treating allergies. Be sure to tell your allergist your toddler's cold or allergy symptoms clearly. Be honest about the child's family and medical history. Irrespective, you should know your options for testing for allergies and the treatment. This will help you better aid your toddler's health in case of future instances. 

Testing for Allergies

If your pediatrician thinks your toddler has developed an allergy, they might recommend tests. An allergy test is the most common office procedure to help confirm your toddler's allergy and its source. It involves a detailed appointment with medical and family history. The entire diagnostic procedure might happen either in the doctor's office or in a lab, and test results are usually delivered within a few days. Here are some commonly recommended allergy tests- 

  • Allergy Skin Tests: These procedures are called hypersensitivity skin tests. Medical professionals classify them as delayed and immediate. The immediate test involves placing an allergen with a prick on your toddler's skin. These are mainly used to confirm airborne, food, and drug allergies in children. The delayed test, on the other hand, involves placing a patch on the skin. These tests detect contact or skin allergies such as from latex and metal. 
  • Blood Tests: These tests are administered to your child if a skin test cannot. This test detects chemicals like antibodies in the blood. However, blood tests aren't as effective as skin tests. 
  • Elimination Diet Tests: Tests for food allergies are recommended in case your toddler has a suspected food allergy. The doctor will supervise a week's diet that keeps eliminating the potential cause. 

types of allergy tests

Allergy tests have become more accessible and available lately to help diagnose allergies in children. You can readily order tests like these in case your child's doctor asks for one. 

The management of allergies can include a variety of approaches. Administering medicines called antihistamines is one of them. The most common form is avoiding the allergen. After all, prevention is better than cure. Your toddler might have to be kept away from the potential allergen as a part of treatment. Devices like Epipen are recommended for extremely sensitive and serious cases. The intensity of allergies is known to reduce with an increase in age. With progress in technology, allergies are not as problematic as they used to be. When in doubt ask your healthcare provider, and be sure to get the best care for your little bundle of joy.