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Cold, Flu, or Allergy? Find Out What's Ailing You

Each year, millions of school and work days are missed because of colds and flu, and right now we are heading into the prime season. How you can best treat your condition depends on whether it's a cold or flu that's ailing you. Since these conditions share many of the same symptoms, they're sometimes hard to tell apart.

Complicating the problem, many people get bad allergies in the fall, when ragweed pollen is at its peak in many areas, and winter can bring its own allergies as people spend more time indoors around pet dander and house dust mites. When the sniffles, stuffy nose and coughing begin, this chart can help you decide how to handle your symptoms.

Symptoms

Airborne Allergy

Cold

Flu

Fever

Never

Rare

Usual, high (100-102°F), sometimes higher-especially in young children); lasts 3-4 days

Headache

Rare

Rare

Common

General Aches, Pains

Never

Slight

Usual; often severe

Fatigue, Weakness

Sometimes

Sometimes

Usual, can last up to 3 weeks

Extreme Exhaustion

Never

Never

Usual, at the beginning of the illness

Stuffy, Runny Nose

Common

Common

Sometimes

Sneezing

Usual

Usual

Sometimes

Sore Throat

Sometimes

Common

Sometimes

Cough

Sometimes

Common, hacking

Common, can become severe

Chest Discomfort

Rare

Mild to moderate

Common

Treatment

  • Antihistamines
  • Nasal steroids (prescription only)
  • Decongestants
  • Antihistamines
  • Decongestants
  • Aspirin, acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) or ibuprofen for aches and pains
  • Aspirin, acetaminophen or ibuprofen for aches, pains and fever
  • Antiviral medicines (see your doctor)

Prevention

Avoid those things that you are allergic to, such as pollen, house dust mites, mold, pet dander, cockroaches

  • Wash your hands often
  • Avoid close contact with anyone with a cold
  • Wash your hands often
  • Avoid close contact with anyone with the flu
  • Annual vaccination
  • Antiviral medicines (see your doctor)

Complications

Sinus infection, asthma

Sinus congestion, middle ear infection, asthma

Bronchitis, pneumonia; can be life-threatening

Source: National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services

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