Is it a Cold or the Flu?

Posted by Lloyd on September 27, 2011
Aches & Pains

This time of year many people find themselves sniffling and sneezing. Can you tell the difference between a cold, flu or something more serious… like allergies or sinusitis? This question can sometimes stump doctors. However, there are little clues that can save you a trip to the doctor’s office.

The most common is a cold. Colds are caused by viruses, which people pass. Allergies have similar symptoms, however, an allergy is hypersensitive to a specific substance. Colds and allergies tend to cause itchy, watery eyes and coughs. With a cold, the cough is wet and usually mucus producing. Allergies have dry coughs.

Here are some other distinctions that doctors say you need to know:

Allergies produce thin nasal discharge, whereas the runny nose of a cold may start out watery, but will thicken and often take on a yellow or greenish tint in a matter of days.
Allergies won’t produce a fever, but colds may.
Colds usually last five to 10 days, but allergies can linger longer.
Allergies flare up when people encounter a specific substance, so the timing of your symptoms can hint about their source. A “cold” that comes every spring when the trees begin to flower may well be a pollen allergy.

The flu is a viral illness that affects the respiratory tract. It is highly contagious. Symptoms of the flu are more of the same, with these additions: headache, muscle pain, chills, nausea, sore throat, sweating, and stiff joints.

Yearly immunization shots provide protection for people who want to avoid the flu. The flu vaccine is produced roughly nine to 12 months ahead of the flu season. The formula used is based on what experts believe will be the most common strains of flu virus in the coming season. The vaccine has a 60 to 70 percent success rate in preventing the different types of influenza viruses each year.


When it comes to treating colds and allergies, over-the-counter options can get overwhelming. Remember that antihistamines go right to the heart of the allergic reaction … that compound is called histamine.

Our bodies make histamine in reaction to foreign substances, and the histamine leads to sneezing and watery eyes and nose. So if you have allergies, you’ll get relief from antihistamines.

On the other hand, if you have a cold, antihistamines may reduce your symptoms, but not much. Decongestants are usually helpful, as these drugs relieve nasal congestion and sinus pressure. They do so by shrinking the blood vessels in the nasal membranes, which opens a clogged nose. Many over-the-counter medications have a combination of antihistamines and decongestants.

The treatment isn’t as cut and dry for the flu. Antibiotics do not work against the viruses and can reduce the body’s ability to fight viruses. Medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help reduce fever and muscle aches. It is important that you drink fluids and get plenty of rest while fighting the flu.

How do you know if it’s sinusitis:

Sinusitis is an inflammation of the sinuses. This can happen if colds and allergies progress and block your sinuses. Symptoms of sinusitis are runny, stuffy nose, fever, tender or red skin over the sinuses and aching in the teeth.

One of the most important things you can do to treat sinusitis is to encourage your sinuses to drain. Inhaling steam will help. So will drinking a lot of fluids to thin out the mucous that the sinuses produce. If your sinusitis stems from a bacterial infection, you may need antibiotics to get rid of it. It’s time to see a doctor.

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