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Allergies or Worse?

You’re sniffling, sneezing, coughing, wheezing, and your throat is on fire. Do you have the flu? Or is it just a bad case of the allergies? It can be hard to tell especially in the late winter and early spring when the pollen count is high. The flu, the common cold, and seasonal allergies all share many of the same symptoms, but understanding the difference will help you choose the right treatments.

“If you know what you have, you won’t take medications that you don’t need, that aren’t effective, or that might even make your symptoms worse,” says NIH’s Dr. Teresa Hauguel, an expert on infectious diseases that affect breathing.

Knowing the Symptoms

Cold, flu, and allergy all affect your respiratory system, which can make it hard to breathe. Each condition has key symptoms that set them apart.

Colds and flu are caused by different viruses. “As a rule of thumb, the symptoms associated with the flu are more severe,” says Hauguel. Both illnesses can lead to a runny, stuffy nose; congestion; cough; and sore throat. If you have a fever that lasts for 3-4 days, headache, fatigue, and general aches and pain, then you probably have the flu because these are less common with a cold.

Allergies are a little different because they aren’t caused by a virus. They are caused by your immune system’s response to allergens. When you breathe in things like pollen or dander, the immuno-receptors in your sinuses and lungs will overreact. This may cause tissues to swell and you mucus membranes may begin to produce fluids in attempt to flush the allergens from your system. Tell-tale symptoms of an allergy attack are the itchy, watery eyes and excessive sneezing.

Treating the cause and the symptoms

To treat a cold or the flu, you get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids. Many over the counter pain and fever reducers are good for the fever and aches that can occur with the flu. Most people get over the flu or a cold within about 10 days. If symptoms last more than those ten days, you should see your doctor or call your telehealth provider. Additional resources for when you have the flu can be found at the CDC’s Flu Resources Page.

Allergy symptoms can last as long as you are exposed to what your body doesn’t like. Seasonal allergy seasons usually last for a few weeks when the seasons change and different foliage blooms. Environmental allergies (dust, mold, dander, etc.) persist until either you or the allergen is removed. Treat the symptoms with antihistamines and decongestants. Tip: Many people need to switch antihistamines for different allergies. Shop around and find a new one if your regular medicine is not working as well anymore.

Read the Labels

In today’s market, there is a plethora of over the counter and off the shelf drugs to help you get through whatever ails you. However you do need to make sure you are taking the right thing, so carefully read the ingredients and what they are used to treat. Another thing to watch for is drug overlap. Many drugs for cold, flu, and allergies all have acetaminophen so if you take two different drugs for two different ailments, but they both have acetaminophen, then you might be getting too much of it. You don’t want to over-medicate, and you don’t want to risk adverse drug interactions.

As always, consult your doctor, telehealth, or pharmacist if you have any medical conditions or are taking any prescription drugs before taking an over the counter or off the shelf medicine.