How to Tell the Difference Between a Cold, Flu and Allergies

Regardless of the cause, sinus pressure and pain can stop you in your tracks. How do you know the cause, and when do you see a doctor? While the common cold, the flu and allergies all have similar sinus symptoms, not all require a visit to your doctor’s office. Here’s a closer look at what separates the three:

  • Allergies typically flair up after you have been exposed to an allergen, such as pollen or pet dander. Initially, you may find a tickle in your throat, watery eyes and sneezing. More severe allergies can include weezing and shortness of breath that can resemble a respiratory infection. The big determining factor is that with an allergy flair up, you will not have a fever.
  • Colds are caused by a virus that is passed from person to person, and the typical symptoms include congestion and coughing. A fever is often present, but because colds are viral, antibiotics will not help.
  • Flus are also caused by viruses, and tend to be more severe than the common cold. The symptoms may be the same, or there may be added stomach related issues, extreme fatigue and muscle pain. While there is a medication, Tamiflu, that can be used to help fight flu viruses, it must be given within 48 hours of symptom onset to shorten the duration of flu symptoms. Thus, it is very important to see your doctor at the first sign of flu symptoms to receive effective treatment.

Sinus Infections

Sinus and respiratory infections can be caused by viruses or bacteria. Viral infections just need to run their course, and will pass with time. Bacterial infections often get worse as time progresses. It is very possible for a viral cold or flu to turn into a bacterial infection, though.

If a viral infection, cold or flu lasts two weeks, it is likely that bacteria has set up shop and will need to be treated with antibiotics. Frequent sinus infections may indicate a bigger problem, and you should see an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist to determine the cause and find a treatment to prevent future problems.

Should You Go to Work or School?

Sinus problems caused by allergies are not infectious, and while you may not feel 100%, it is safe to continue normal activities. If a fever is present, it is safe to assume you are contagious, and should wait 24 hours after the fever breaks to return to work and school.

Ramie A. Tritt, MD, President, Atlanta ENT

 

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