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Allergies, Cold, or Flu: How To Recognize the Difference

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Coronavirus may be dominating the news, but cold and flu season is also in full swing. And spring allergy season that often leaves you feeling miserable and run down is here. When a runny nose, cough, and congestion come calling, understanding the difference between flu, cold, and allergies can help you treat your symptoms properly and recover more quickly.


Influenza, or the seasonal flu, is caused by influenza viruses that affect your throat, nose, and lungs. These viruses spread when infected people cough, sneeze, or even talk, sending microdroplets containing the virus airborne. People in the line of fire inhale into their mouths and noses these airborne infections, looking for a warm, moist place to take root.

Flu can also spread by touching surfaces containing the virus and then touching your mouth, nose, and eyes. Having a flu shot each year reduces your risk and may lessen the flu’s severity if you do contract it.

Flu symptoms typically come on quickly, and they last a finite amount of time–at most a week or two. An essential indicator of the flu is a sudden fever that exceeds 101 degrees. Unlike colds and allergies, the flu often produces symptoms like chills, body aches, night sweats, and gastrointestinal problems. The flu can be treated with medications like Tamiflu within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms to reduce the duration and intensity of the illness.

For people with heart disease, diabetes, compromised immune systems, or chronic lung diseases like asthma or COPD, the flu can be very serious, even resulting in death. The influenza virus is highly infectious and can spread to others before an infected person knows they’re sick. Infection spreads a day before symptoms appear and up to seven days after symptoms surface. Young children and people with weakened immune systems can infect others for an even more extended period.

Pneumonia is a dangerous complication of the flu and is caused by the influenza virus or bacteria finding its way into your lungs when your body’s immune system is weak. If you have trouble breathing, have chest pain when coughing, or cough up green, yellow, or bloody phlegm, make an appointment right away to see your doctor.


The common cold is a mild upper respiratory illness caused by a virus, typically rhinoviruses. They are transmitted the same way as flu, microdroplets containing the virus find their way into eyes, mouth, or nose. But, unlike flu symptoms, which come on quickly, cold symptoms usually come on more gradually.

Cold symptoms generally develop one to three days after exposure to the bug. Symptoms may include a sore throat, runny or stuffed up nose, sneezing, and fatigue. Fever rarely happens with the common cold, which usually goes away on its own after a week or so. Since there’s no cure for the common cold–antibiotics can’t treat it–the best course of action is to use over-the-counter medications and zinc supplements to reduce your symptoms until it runs its course.

A complication of the cold is sinusitis, or a sinus infection, usually caused by bacteria and treated with antibiotics. Sinus infection symptoms include discolored nasal discharge, facial pain or pressure, headaches, fever, and cough.


Allergies are a reaction to a substance the immune system interprets as harmful. This over-reacting immune response triggers your body to release chemicals that can cause symptoms similar to those of the cold, including sneezing, a runny nose, a scratchy throat, and nasal congestion. The mucus associated with allergies tends to be runny and clear. Unlike the common cold, allergies often produce itchy eyes, nose, and throat.

Allergic reactions will last as long as the allergen is present, and the best course of action is to take over-the-counter allergy medication or antihistamine.

Whenever possible, avoid the allergen. This may involve staying indoors during allergy season, keeping your HVAC system running so that allergens get trapped in the filter, and keeping your windows closed.

If you have severe allergic reactions, your doctor can test for allergies and treat them with immunotherapy, which involves exposing you to small amounts of the allergen over time to prevent symptoms.

How to Boost Immunity and Protect Yourself Against Cold and Flu

While there’s not a lot you can do to prevent common allergies, aside from avoiding the allergen or undergoing immunotherapy, there are several ways you can protect yourself against cold and flu viruses.

Number one, wash your hands. When you touch things like door handles, money, keypads, grocery carts, and other shared surfaces, your hands easily pick up viruses.

When you touch your face–your eyes, nose, or mouth–, the virus enters your body and causes harm. One of the most effective things you can do to protect against any virus or bacteria is to wash your hands thoroughly and often with soap and water.

When handwashing isn’t an option, use hand sanitizer. And never touch your face unless your hands are freshly washed.

Next, wipe down surfaces. Use disinfecting wipes to clean the surfaces you frequently come into contact with at home and work, including your phone, computer, and door handles. Viruses can live on many surfaces for several days, and frequently disinfecting often-touched surfaces reduces dramatically the number of microbes you’ll come into contact with as you move about your day.

And finally, boost your immune system.  A stronger immune system means you’re less likely to experience the full brunt of cold and flu symptoms. Since sound sleep and your immune system go hand and hand, strive for adequate sleep every night. Include plenty of fruits and vegetables in your daily diet, which provide nutrients and antioxidants that improve immunity and help reduce the duration and severity of colds and flu.

Eat more fermented foods, and take a daily probiotic supplement Stonehenge Health’s Dynamic Biotics. Both promote a healthy gut microbiome by allowing beneficial gut bacteria to flourish, which helps your body’s immune cells respond more robustly to invaders. And according to research, probiotics may reduce virus levels in your nasal mucus, too.

As we age, colds, flu, and allergies can impact us more intensely, and underlying health conditions can make them worse. If you’re suffering from symptoms and aren’t sure whether you have a virus or allergies, visit your doctor. Early intervention can make a flu bout shorter and less intense, and it can help prevent dangerous complications.


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