How to Tell the Difference Between a Cold, the Flu and Allergies
It’s that season again. When you first start to feel lousy, it’s sometimes hard to know whether it’s a cold, the flu, or allergies acting up. Knowing the difference may help you pick the best treatment. All three ailments affect the respiratory system and can make it harder to breathe.
Colds and flu are caused by viruses. Both can give you a sore throat, congested head and cough, but the flu might also include a high fever, aches, pains, headache and extreme exhaustion. Allergy symptoms like sneezing and a stuffy nose can be confused with a cold, but allergies tend to make the eyes itchy and watery, which seldom happens with colds (or flu). Allergies are triggered by allergens (pollen, foods, pet dander, perfumes), not by viruses. When exposed to allergens, the delicate tissue in the nose and airways may swell and result in a runny or stuffed up nose.
Source: NIH News in Health
Colds and allergies can progress to sinus infections: when the air cavities (or sinuses) on either side of the nose and the front center of the forehead become inflamed and don’t drain. The mucous trapped in the sinuses causes pressure and can be a breeding ground for bacteria. Colds and sinus infections have similar symptoms, but colds usually peak after 3-5 days and then improve. Sinus infections tend to stick around longer and cause facial pain, tenderness or pressure; yellow or green mucous; and bad breath. Having allergies can increase the likelihood of developing sinus infections.
If a sore throat rears its ugly head, how do you decide if it is a cold symptom or strep throat? Strep is an infection in the throat and tonsils caused by bacteria. It is more common among children than adults. The signs of strep include a sore throat that starts very quickly, pain when swallowing, swollen and red tonsils sometimes with white spots, fever and swollen lymph nodes in the front of the neck. If the sore throat is accompanied by a cough, runny nose, and hoarseness, the cause is likely a cold, and not a strep bacterial infection. A quick test by your provider can determine if strep is present.
While there is no cure for colds and flu, consider these remedies to ease the symptoms:
Multi-symptom over the counter (OTC) medications can provide temporary relief. These may contain ibuprofen or acetaminophen, a decongestant or antihistamine, and/or a cough suppressant. When selecting symptom relief, aim to match your symptoms with the medicine. If you are stuffed up, but don’t have a cough or pain, it’s better to take a decongestant and/or breathe in steam from a bowl of hot water rather than take medicine for symptoms you don’t have. Note that decongestants should be avoided by those with high blood pressure since they relieve congestion by narrowing blood vessels.
If taking multi-symptom medicine, don’t take any ingredients separately that are already in the multi-symptom formula; double dosing can cause dangerous side effects. Antibiotics only treat bacterial infections so don’t expect antibiotics to help a cold or flu virus. Antibiotics will be prescribed for strep throat and may be used to treat a sinus infection (if it is caused by bacteria).
Most people recover from a cold or flu without needing medical care, but for symptoms that are severe or last longer than 10 days, contact your primary care provider (PCP).
If you suspect the flu, you may benefit from taking anti-viral medication to reduce the severity of symptoms. To be effective, anti-viral medications must be started in the first day or two that flu symptoms appear. Young children, older adults, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems tend to be at higher risk for complications from the flu. If you are at higher risk, you may want to consult your PCP when flu symptoms first arise.
Allergy symptoms persist if the allergen continues to be present. For seasonal allergy sufferers, that can mean spending more time indoors with the windows closed. When outdoors, wearing a mask can filter out some allergens. If milk, cats, perfumes or other triggers are the cause, eliminating the allergen from your diet or environment can stop or ease the allergic reaction.
OTC medications containing antihistamines can help relieve allergy symptoms. Some allergy medicines contain diphenhydramine, which can cause drowsiness. Be sure to read labels carefully and/or consult with your PCP to select an allergy medicine without unwanted side effects. Those who have life-threatening allergic reactions often carry an epi-pen, a device to inject epinephrine, a medicine that re-opens closed airways in emergency situations.
Tips for Avoiding Illness
We hope you stay healthy this season but if you develop symptoms, don’t hesitate to consult with your KnovaSolutions clinician. Call us at (800) 355-0885 (M-F, 8-8, MT).
The information contained in this newsletter is for general, educational purposes. It should not be considered a replacement for consultation with your healthcare provider. If you have concerns about your health, please contact your healthcare provider.
KnovaSolutions is the clinical prevention service of HCMS Group. This service is available to Alliance Health Plan participants at no additional cost, helping them manage complex health-care situations by gaining a better understanding of their choices for medical care, treatment, and medication.