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How to Know if You Have a Cold, the Flu, or Allergies

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When you're sick, you know it. But sometimes it's hard to tell if you have a cold, the flu, or even allergies. These three unpleasant conditions share similar symptoms, so it can be easy to mistake one for another — especially during the time of year when all three are prevalent. Hello, spring! But to get your body back on track, it's crucial to know what exactly is messing with your respiratory system

“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 Teresa Marie Hauguel, PhD, of the National Institutes of Health.

This is extremely important when it comes to the flu, which has the potential to lead to serious health consequences, such as pneumonia, infections, and even death. But no matter which condition you have, you can only get the right treatment if you know what you're treating. Scroll down to learn the main differences between the flu, a cold, and airborne allergies.

Do I have a cold or the flu?

It can be hard to tell a cold and the flu apart at first. Both bring similar unwelcome gifts like a runny or stuffy nose, congestion, coughing, and a sore throat. But a flu can also bring a high fever — which can last up to four days — along with headache, fatigue, and general aches and pains all over the body. This is are far less common with a cold, according to the National Institutes of Health. While cold symptoms tend to develop gradually, the onset of the flu is pretty speedy. Also, flu symptoms are much more severe, and complications can be, too. While colds generally do not lead to dire problems in the body, the flu can lead to serious issues like bronchitis, pneumonia, and bacterial infections — it can also be life-threatening.

Do I have a cold or allergies?

It's pretty easy to mix up a cold with airborne allergies, too. (Been there, done that!) Both can bring on a runny, stuffy nose, as well as sinus drainage and sneezing. They can also both lead to similar complications, like sinus or middle ear infections, asthma, or weezing. However, it's important to remember that unlike the cold and flu, allergies are not caused by a virus. Instead, allergies are caused by your body's reaction to a certain trigger (such as pollen). Most noticeably, allergies tend to cause your eyes to itch and water, which usually isn't the case with a cold or flu. Here's the bad news: While a cold or flu usually goes away after two weeks, allergies can stick around for as long as the allergen does — which could be up to six weeks during, say, pollen season.

Do I have the flu or allergies?

Flu season and allergy season are words that make plenty of people shutter, but it's even worse when they overlap. Pritish Tosh, MD, of Mayo Clinic, says there is one crucial way to rule out an allergic reaction. "Allergies should not come along with a fever," says Dr. Tosh. "If you have a runny nose, cough, and sneezing, along with a fever, it's probably a viral upper respiratory infection." On the other hand, Tosh says if you're experiencing symptoms like itchy eyes, sneezing, and other reactions when you move from one spot to another — like walking outside or stepping inside a certain building — it's most likely an allergy.

Talk to your doctor about what treatments are best for your condition — especially if your symptoms begin to change or get worse. Let's all do our part to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe and healthy!

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