Cold, Flu or Allergies? Important to Find Out First
November 06, 2017
Feeling lousy? Could be a cold, flu or allergies. But before you self-medicate, make sure you know your ailment.
Because if you guess wrong, medications that remedy one ailment won’t do you any good or could worsen the symptoms of the ailment you actually have.
It isn’t easy to tell the difference. Cold, flu and allergies all can affect your respiratory system, making breathing difficult and your nose stuffed and runny.
However, colds and flu are caused by viruses and rarely last beyond two weeks. Allergies result when your immune system reacts to pollen, pet dander and other allergens and last as long as you remain exposed to allergens. Allergies also can cause itchy, watery eyes – something normally not associated with cold or flu.
Symptoms usually are quite different. Here are some clues, from the National Institutes of Health:
- Fever: Cold – rare. Flu – usually high (above 100 degrees). Allergies – Never.
- General aches/pains: Cold – slight. Flu – common, often severe. Allergies – Never.
- Headache: Flu – common. Cold and allergies – uncommon.
- Fatigue/Weakness: Flu – common and can last up to three weeks. Cold and allergies – sometimes.
- Sneezing: Cold and allergies – usually. Flu – sometimes.
- Sore Throat: Cold – common. Flu and allergies – sometimes.
- Cough: Cold – common. Flu – common, sometimes severe. Allergies – sometimes.
- Chest discomfort: Cold – mild to moderate. Flu – common. Allergies – rare (except for those with asthma).
Colds don’t require medical attention. A common refrain mostly applies: get rest, drink plenty of fluids and, if uncomfortable with aches and pains, take aspirin. However, aspirin is for those age 18 or older. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen are alternatives.
Same guidance is true for flu, but if you have a high fever, see a doctor. You may need antiviral medicine.
Allergies require different medications – perhaps antihistamines, decongestants and nasal steroids, depending on what your immune system is reacting to. If none of the above are working, get guidance from a doctor.
Watch for potential complications. For colds and allergies – sinus infection, middle ear infection, asthma. For flu – bronchitis and pneumonia. Check in with a doctor for all complications.
Here’s one easy step for preventing the flu (and missed days of school or work) — get a flu shot.
Marc Zook, MD, practices family medicine at Austin Regional Clinic – Wilson Parke, near FM 620 north of Steiner Ranch.