It’s that time of year. People everywhere are coughing and sneezing, suffering from stuffy heads and runny noses. Cold and flu season isn’t over yet, and allergy season will be hard on its heels. At this time of year it may be hard to know if you have a cold, allergies, a sinus infection, or even the flu.
While the symptoms of all these illnesses are similar, there are differences. Below is a simple guide to telling the difference between a cold and a more serious problem.
Is it the common cold?
Most people associate coughing and sneezing with the common cold, but the first symptom is usually a sore throat. This generally lasts a day or two, followed by the stereotypical runny nose, sneezing, and congestion, which also lasts a day or two.
Around the fourth or fifth day, a cough usually develops. By the seventh day, symptoms should start improving. A cold normally lasts from three to 14 days. Cold symptoms usually come on suddenly and resolve themselves suddenly, too. A fever, however, is uncommon – although children are more likely to develop a fever than adults – and may be a sign that something more serious is going on.
Is it the flu?
Influenza – “the flu” – hits suddenly, too. Unlike the common cold, in which symptoms build on each other, flu symptoms tend to happen all at once. Symptoms of influenza include fever, headache, coughing, head and chest congestion, and muscle or joint aches. Influenza symptoms are also much more severe than cold symptoms. A fever of 102 or possibly higher is common, and the headache can be incapacitating. Muscle aches are severe. Extreme fatigue is also a common symptom of the flu.
Influenza usually lasts about seven to 10 days. Unlike the common cold, flu symptoms improve gradually and the fatigue can persist for up to three weeks after the virus has run its course.
Is it allergies?
It’s fairly easy to tell the difference between a cold and the flu. Cold symptoms and allergy symptoms, however, have much more overlap and are more difficult to differentiate.
A cold usually causes a runny nose, sneezing, a cough, and a sore throat. Allergies often cause sneezing and a runny nose, and may also cause a cough or a sore throat due to sinus drainage.
Another common symptom of allergies is itchy, watery eyes, although this isn’t always present. Unlike those of colds, allergy symptoms don’t dissipate after a week or two. Allergy symptoms continue for as long as a person is exposed to the substance they’re allergic to, such as mold or pollen. If cold-like symptoms persist for more than two weeks, there’s a good chance its allergies.
Is it a sinus infection?
Sinus infections – or sinusitis – can be caused by either viruses or bacteria. When you have a stuffy nose, it means your sinuses aren’t draining. And when they can’t drain, they become the perfect breeding ground for these bacteria and viruses.
Classic symptoms of sinusitis include pressure behind the eyes and cheeks or in the forehead, a headache, and a stuffy nose that lasts more than a week. Sinusitis can cause a fever, a cough, decreased sense of smell, and even bad breath. Postnasal drip – mucus draining down the back of the throat – is a common feature of a sinus infection, and may sometimes cause a sore throat.
If it’s due to a virus, sinusitis may sometimes resolve itself on its own, and antibiotics will usually clear up bacterial infections. Sometimes, however, sinusitis can last for weeks or even months. If this is the case, or if it recurs often, it’s called chronic sinusitis. Chronic sinusitis may require sinus surgery. Balloon sinuplasty, as offered by the American Sinus Institute, can help with chronic sinusitis.