When you catch the sniffles, is it a common cold or is it something more? Sniffles may also indicate you're dealing with one of three other things: the flu, allergies or an infection. Colds are caused by viruses, while allergies are triggered by allergens like pollen or pet dander. Infections happen when nasal cavities get swollen and inflamed, and the main difference between that and a cold is how long it lasts. And the flu is, well - the flu, which is contagious and much more severe. Here's how to tell what you might be fighting based on other symptoms- and more importantly, how to nip it in the bud.
Signs it's the flu: Fever
If your sniffles come with a fever, it may be the flu. Initially, the flu might seem like a cold with a runny nose, sneezing and sore throat. But colds usually develop slowly, whereas the flu tends to come on suddenly. A fever over 100.4 degrees F is a common symptom of the flu, and some high temperatures can run between 103 F to 104 F. Although it's important to note that not everyone with the flu will have a fever.
How to treat a fever
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people with the flu stay home and rest for at least 24 hours after the fever is gone, unless they're leaving the house to get medical care or other necessities. Depending on various factors, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication like Tamiflu to shorten your illness. You can take over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen to reduce the fever and the pain that comes with the illness. To prevent getting sick in the first place, the CDC suggests getting a flu shot. The annual vaccine is the best way to help protect yourself from the virus.
Signs it's the flu: Fatigue
A high fever isn't the only sign those sniffles are the flu. Feeling exhausted is another sign you may have caught it. It's common to feel as if you're unable to perform daily activities - or even get out of bed. Flu-related fatigue is much more intense than the run-down feeling you may have from a cold and can linger for weeks.
How to treat fatigue
If you're feeling really run down, drinking fluids can help. Dehydration can make you feel lethargic, even more so if you're battling the flu. In general, the higher your fever, the more dehydrated and tired you become. Consuming a sufficient amount of fluids can help replenish the water your body loses. Hot soup or any hot liquid might give you some temporary relief and comfort if water isn't doing the trick.
Signs it's the flu: Dry cough
Unlike ordinary colds, the flu produces a hacking, dry cough. In most cases, the high fever and overall pangs settle down in two to five days, but the cough can linger for a week or more and the fatigue can last even longer.
How to treat a dry cough
You can absolutely take over-the-counter cough suppressants for relief, but if you're looking for a fast-acting home remedy, look no further than honey. Due to its natural antibacterial properties, it can calm nighttime coughs. It soothes the scratchy feeling by coating your throat. You can take a tablespoon by itself or stir it into warm water or milk.
Signs it's the flu: Chills and sweats
When you have a high fever, you're also likely to experience chills. The higher your body temperature, the colder the air will feel. Your body may use chills to boost its core temperature in an attempt to kill the virus. Although you might feel like you're freezing, your body temperature inside could be as high as 104 F.
How to treat chills and sweats
A lukewarm bath might help your shivers. You should also pack on layers and make sure to cover your head, hands and feet.
Signs it's allergies: Watery or itchy eyes
It's rare to have itchy eyes when you have a cold, but it's usually a telltale sign of allergies. Allergens cause the release of a chemical called histamine in the tissues around the eyes, which results in uncomfortable symptoms like red, itchy and watery eyes.
How to treat itchy, watery eyes
Try your best to avoid exposure to allergens that trigger your symptoms. Common triggers include grass or tree pollen and pet dander. Itchy eyes from allergies can be treated effectively with eye drops that have antihistamines and decongestants that shrink the blood vessels and reduce redness. You can also try a cold compress by taking a clean cloth, soaking it in cold water and applying it to closed eyes, repeating as often as needed.
Signs it's allergies: Prolonged congestion
If you just can't shake the sniffles, it could be allergies. According to the CDC, allergy symptoms can go on for several weeks, particularly if the allergen remains in the air, while a cold typically lasts about seven to 10 days. Which means, if your nasal congestion is lasting longer than usual, it's likely because of allergies.
How to treat prolonged congestion
Many people get the best relief from a combination of allergy medications. You might need to try a few before you find what works best. But there are alternative ways to ease symptoms, such as using a warm compress or a neti pot. If you decide on a neti pot, fill the spouted pot with a mixture of warm water and salt. Always follow the instructions on how to make the solution. Then gently tilt the pot to pour a stream of water through one nostril and out the other. The salt solution loosens mucus to relieve congestion and clears out allergens, such as pollen or pet dander. Another trick is to eat spicy foods. Capsaicin, the compound found in chiles, can help ease sinus pain, reduce inflammation and release blocked mucus.
Signs it allergies: Sneezing
If you find yourself sneezing more every spring or fall, it's because that's the most common time of year for seasonal allergies, also known as hay fever. The term is used to describe allergic reactions in the nose. A glaring sign that those sniffles are because of allergies as opposed to a common cold is sneezing in combination with a runny nose with thin, watery discharge.
How to treat sneezing
A good place to start treating your allergies is to know what causes them. You could use over-the-counter or prescription antihistamines and decongestants to get relief from allergies and stop sneezing. Antihistamines work by preventing more histamine from being released. Nasal sprays are also helpful in treating allergy symptoms, especially ones containing corticosteroids that decrease inflammation in the nose and reduce congestion.
Signs it's an infection: Post-nasal drip
Your sniffles may have one other root cause: an infection. And a post-nasal drip may signal that is what you are fighting. Typically, you don't notice the mucus from your nose because it mixes with saliva and drips down the back of your throat. But when your body produces more mucus than usual, as it does when it fights an infection, the excess may cause a post-nasal drip that runs down the back of your nose to your throat and can lead to a sinus infection.
How to treat a post-nasal drip
How you treat post-nasal drip depends on what's causing it. Antibiotics can clear up a bacterial infection, but if your post-nasal drip is caused by a virus, which won't respond to antibiotics, there are other things you can try. Antihistamines and decongestants can relieve symptoms associated with post-nasal drip caused by sinusitis and viral infections. Antihistamines like loratadine may be better options and are less likely to cause drowsiness. You can also use saline nasal sprays or a neti pot to flush mucus and bacteria out of your system.
Signs it's an infection: Sinus pain
While sinus pain with a cold is common, sometimes bacteria in blocked sinuses can lead to an infection known as bacterial sinusitis and might cause pain longer than the week of a typical cold. The sinuses are a connected system of hollow cavities in the skull located in your forehead, inside your cheekbones and behind the nose. If your sinuses are inflamed and swollen from nasal issues, you might experience an ache with a dull pressure in these areas.
How to treat sinus pain
Running a humidifier to combat stuffy sinuses is a good start. Using one at night can help keep your sinuses open and relieve the pressure so you can get a good night's sleep. Also try a steaming hot shower to open up those airways. If the pain is even more persistent, press a warm, wet washcloth across your forehead, eyes and cheeks. You can also eat immune-boosting foods like ginger, garlic and onions to clear up your sinuses, which will then reduce the pain. Garlic is believed to have natural anti-fungal and antibacterial properties that make it useful in treating a host of sinus-related conditions.
Signs it's an infection: Your throat is on fire
It's normal to have an itchy, scratchy throat in conjunction with sniffles when you have a cold, but a severe sore throat can mean an infection. If you have a high fever with swollen lymph nodes and an intense soreness in your throat that comes on quickly, it may be a bacterial infection like strep. Another indicator that it's not just a cold is if the severity of your sore throat lasts more than 48 hours. Along with very painful swallowing, other symptoms of strep are red, swollen tonsils with white patches and tiny red spots at the back of the roof of your mouth.
How to treat your sore throat
See your doctor. The cause of some of these signs and symptoms could be a viral infection or some other illness, which is why doctors generally test specifically for strep throat using a swab and culture. The bacteria that causes strep is highly contagious and can spread through airborne droplets when someone with the infection coughs or sneezes. In most cases, antibiotics will quickly wipe out the bacteria and the symptoms will subside significantly within a few days.
Signs it's an infection: A worsening headache
If your runny nose is accompanied by a worsening headache, it's likely to be more than just a cold. Sinus headaches can cause pain and pressure in your cheeks, brow and your forehead. These symptoms typically occur if your sinuses are already clogged. An infection-related headache also gets worse if you bend forward or lie down because inflammation can cause a buildup of fluid and increased sinus pressure.
How to treat a headache
Over-the-counter pain medications can help control headache pain. Decongestant medications such as pseudoephedrine may also help drain your sinuses, which are likely what's causing the aches. Though medication is helpful, lying in a dark room can work wonders to ease the headache if you're light sensitive.
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