Although common, allergies can be a nuisance, causing a runny nose, sneezing, itchy eyes, and other symptoms.
For some people, this includes a cough.
Understanding how allergies work—and why they cause the symptoms they do—can help you prevent and treat your allergy symptoms effectively.
In this article, I’ll discuss allergy symptoms, what an allergy cough feels like, and common allergies that can cause a cough.
I’ll also explore the differences between an allergy cough and a cold, as well as how to treat an allergy cough.
Finally, I’ll explain when to seek immediate medical treatment.
Allergy symptoms are the result of your immune system responding to a foreign substance, such as tree pollen or pet dander.
When you encounter something you’re allergic to, your body releases a chemical called histamine.
This chemical triggers allergy symptoms.
In the case of seasonal allergies (also called hay fever), this can include:
- Runny nose
- Itchy nose
- Itchy or swollen eyes
- Ear congestion
- Sinus pressure
- Sinus headache
- Postnasal drip
- Itchy mouth
Why allergies may cause a cough
A cough is your body’s reflex to an allergen or irritant in your throat or airway.
Allergies can also cause a cough due to postnasal drip.
Normally, mucus in your sinuses drains through your nose.
But if your sinuses are swollen due to allergies and can’t drain, mucus may drip into your throat and trigger a cough.
It’s also common for people with seasonal allergies to experience postnasal drip at night when they’re lying in bed.
What an Allergy Cough Feels Like
What an allergy cough feels like depends on what’s happening in your body.
If your throat is irritated by an allergen, you might feel a tickle in your throat and experience a dry cough.
Postnasal drip due to allergies can also cause a tickle in your throat, but in this case you may cough up mucus or phlegm.
This is called a wet, or productive, cough.
Additionally, allergies can exacerbate asthma and cause shortness of breath and wheezing.
If this happens, use your asthma medication (such as an inhaler).
Common Allergies That Cause a Cough
Different allergens can cause the same symptoms. All of the following may trigger a cough.
Grass and tree pollen
Pollen is a tiny substance released by plants to fertilize other plants.
Tree, ragweed, and grass pollen commonly cause allergic reactions in affected individuals during the spring, summer, and fall months.
Depending on where you live, grass and tree pollen allergies may also be bothersome during the winter.
Mold and fungi spores
Mold and fungi spores are common in various indoor and outdoor settings.
Some types of mold spores move through the air on windy days.
Other types circulate more when it’s humid outside.
You can also have mold in your home, as fungi grows in moist areas like bathrooms and basements.
If your allergies are worse when you’re indoors, you may be allergic to dust.
Everyone’s home has dust, which may be composed of insect parts, pet dander, pollen, mold, and dust mites (tiny organisms that feed on dead skin cells).
Pet allergies are caused by a protein that’s found in an animal’s skin cells (dander), saliva, or urine.
Though any animal with fur can cause allergies, animal dander allergies are linked with pets such as cats and dogs.
Allergy Cough vs a Cold
Both seasonal allergies and the common cold can cause a cough and other similar symptoms such as a runny nose.
However, the two have different causes and durations, and some symptoms are unique to colds.
- Cause: Allergies are caused by a reaction to something in your environment. A cold is caused by a viral infection.
- Duration: Allergies may last as long as you’re exposed to the allergen that bothers you (for example, throughout pollen season). A cold tends to resolve after 1-2 weeks.
- Symptoms: With a cold, it’s more common to experience a sore throat, body aches, and a headache; these symptoms are less likely to occur with allergies. You might also feel discomfort in your chest with the common cold, but that’s unlikely to happen with allergies unless you have asthma.
Allergy Cough vs COVID-19
Both seasonal allergies and COVID-19 affect the respiratory system and can cause a cough.
But, as with the common cold, some factors are unique to COVID-19.
First, COVID-19 is caused by a viral infection.
Second, in addition to a cough, symptoms of COVID-19 may include:
Seasonal allergies do not cause these symptoms.
How to Treat an Allergy Cough
Though a cough caused by allergies can be bothersome, some home remedies and medications may help reduce your symptoms.
- Allergy-proof your space: Close your windows during allergy season. Vacuum your rugs, carpets, and upholstery regularly to decrease allergens in your home, and change your bedsheets frequently. Also change your clothes when you come inside from being outdoors.
- Use an air purifier: Air purifiers filter out particles that may exacerbate allergy symptoms.
- Try a sinus rinse: A sinus rinse, such as a neti pot with saline, can flush allergens from your nasal passages and decrease the likelihood of postnasal drip.
- Avoid allergens: Try to keep track of which allergens bother you. Once you know your triggers, do your best to avoid them.
- Shower daily: Showering and washing your hair daily can prevent spreading allergens around your home, which may make your allergies worse.
- Use a dehumidifier or humidifier: If you’re allergic to mold, try to prevent excess moisture in your home by using a dehumidifier. If you’re allergic to dust or pollen, a cool-mist humidifier may prevent a cough.
If home remedies don’t provide relief from your allergy cough, consider an over-the-counter medication such as:
- Antihistamines: These medications work by blocking the effects of histamine, the chemical that causes allergy symptoms. Taking an antihistamine such as loratadine (Claritin), cetirizine (Zyrtec), or fexofenadine (Allegra) may improve your cough by preventing postnasal drip.
- Nasal sprays: Sprays that contain corticosteroids, such as fluticasone (Flonase), can reduce inflammation and swelling in your nose, making it easier for your sinuses to drain and preventing post nasal drip. Other nasal sprays only contain saline, which can help remove allergens from your sinus passages. Lastly, decongestant nasal sprays clear the sinuses but should be used with caution due to their risk for dependence.
- Immunotherapy: If your allergies don’t improve with other treatments, your doctor might suggest immunotherapy. These shots inject tiny amounts of allergens, which can help prevent your immune system from reacting to them in the future. Immunotherapy usually lasts for a few years.
When to Seek Medical Treatment
While typical allergies often resolve on their own, certain forms of allergies may cause serious medical complications.
Allergies and asthma attacks
If you have asthma, exposure to your allergens may trigger an asthma attack, narrowing your airways and making it difficult to breathe.
Always follow your doctor’s instructions for asthma treatment, including taking daily medications and using a rescue inhaler.
If you’re struggling to breathe and don’t have medication or your medicine isn’t working, call 911 or go to the emergency department immediately.
Some people with severe allergies to food, medications, or insects are at risk for a medical emergency called anaphylactic shock.
If you experience any of the following symptoms after exposure to an allergen, call 911 or go to the emergency department:
- Severe shortness of breath
- Loss of consciousness
- Low blood pressure
- Skin rash
- Fast but weak pulse
- Nausea and/or vomiting
If you have an epinephrine auto-injector (such as an EpiPen) for allergic reactions, use it ASAP after an allergic reaction, and call 911 or go to the emergency department.
Even if the medication helps your symptoms, you still need emergency medical care.
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Advances in the Clinical and Mechanism Research of Pollen Induced Seasonal Allergic Asthma. (2019).
Allergic Rhinitis. (2022).
Allergies and Pollen. (2020).