Newswise — Being sick can really put a damper on your day or week, and if you’re achy, sneezing and just downright miserable, you may not be able to tell if you have a cold, the flu or allergies. Although you may opt to try to fight the sickness with hot tea and bed rest, it’s best to know what ailment is plaguing you so you can treat it accordingly—especially if it’s contagious. Cindy Weston, DNP, RN, FNP-BC, assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Nursing, helps break down these congesting conditions.
The common cold, flu and allergies are extremely common, and many people will experience them throughout the year. Still, even though these conditions are so often seen, they can still be tricky to diagnose. “Diagnosis is based on symptoms and supportive diagnostic data,” Weston said. “Someone will come in and think they have a cold, and it may be the flu, and sometimes people think they have the flu and it is a common cold or allergies.”
A common cold
There are many different viruses that can lead to a common cold, and they can be difficult to treat because antibiotics are ineffective against viral infections. The only thing you can do for the common cold is treat your symptoms, drink fluids and get plenty of rest.
“The common cold is complicated to treat and can’t be cured, but rest and nutrition seem to be the best approach,” Weston said. “You can take medications to treat the symptoms and make yourself more comfortable.”
A cold can have a variety of symptoms, but the most common include:
•Mild fatigue•Fever•Cough•Sore throat•Congestion, runny nose, sneezing•Watery eyes or nose•Head, chest or nasal congestion
A cold will usually go away on its own within a week and typically doesn’t warrant a trip to your health care provider. If you’re still feeling bad after a week, however, or if your symptoms are severe or you have an underlying chronic condition like asthma, it might be time to seek help. The common cold can happen year-round, however it seems to be more common in the colder months when everyone migrates indoors and the virus is more communicable.
“A cold can be very tricky because some of the symptoms may linger,” Weston said. “Sometimes your cold may be gone, but your cough could persist for another month.”
Influenza is a year-round viral infection, with high outbreaks occurring between fall and spring, and one of the most common illnesses in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were an estimated 19 million medically attended cases of influenza during the 2014–2015 flu season.
The flu, which can be prevented with a yearly vaccine, can have very similar symptoms to a common cold, but with a few distinct differences.
“The flu typically comes on quick and strong as opposed to a nagging cold,” Weston said. “You may be feeling fine during the morning but can feel horrible, with a fever and aches, in the afternoon.”
Another difference between the flu and the common cold is the type of aches and pain. “Aches and pains are prevalent in both conditions, but with a cold, the aches are mild and generally associated with congestion,” Weston said. “The flu can present with deep muscle pains in your large muscles, including your legs and back.”
Common flu symptoms can include:
•Whole body aches•High fever (over 101 degrees)•Extreme exhaustion or fatigue•Cough•Sore throat•Runny nose•Head, chest or nasal congestion
When you have the flu, it’s best to get medical treatment—and fast. Anti-viral medications may be prescribed within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms to reduce the intensity of symptoms and lessen the chance of complications.
“Both the flu and cold can lead to further problems like pneumonia, bronchitis or sinusitis,” Weston said. “The flu is more likely to do so, but it’s best to treat the symptoms and stay well rested to lessen the chances of further problems.”
Another common explanation for itchy or runny eyes or nose is seasonal allergies. When pollen is blown around on a windy day, these allergens can trigger chemicals in your body to defend against them.
Seasonal allergies are typically easier to diagnose, mainly because of the lack of certain symptoms commonly found with the flu or a common cold.
“Allergies will not present with a fever,” Weston said. “With allergies, there will be itchiness and irritation around the nose or eyes, but the symptoms should be present only as long as the allergens remain.”
Seasonal allergies can develop at any age, so just because you didn’t have allergies during the last change of seasons, doesn’t mean you can’t develop them the next time. Also, allergies can be an asthma trigger, so getting a grasp on them can be important before they lead to further problems.
Common seasonal allergy symptoms include:
•Sneezing•Runny, itchy nose•Red, watery and itchy eyes•Head, chest or nasal congestion•Cough
What should I do?
The flu requires prescription medications to prevent complications, but apart from that, a cold, flu and allergies can be treated with over-the-counter medications, such as antihistamines or decongestants, and plenty of rest and hydration. Be sure to use as described and contact your health care provider or pharmacist to make sure you’re not double-dosing on medications.
“If you think you might have a cold or the flu, avoid spreading the germs to others,” Weston added. “It’s best to stay home until you’ve been fever-free for 24 hours or have completed a day’s worth of prescribed medication.”
Also, if your nasal congestion becomes overwhelming, rinsing your sinuses with a nasal irrigation pot can help remove allergens and prevent infection in your sinuses.
“Nasal irrigation systems can work to help prevent infection in your sinuses,” Weston said. “Just be sure that you’re using it as directed and with properly filtered or previously-boiled water.”
Be sure to contact your health care provider if your fever doesn’t go away, or if you have trouble breathing or keeping food down. While complications are rare, they are a possibility and should be caught early.
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