Pull yourself together. You’re not sick yet. And before you are, it’ll be worthwhile to know your enemy. Although the symptoms and self-treatment may be similar, a cold is not the flu and the flu is not an allergy.

The Common Cold

First, the good news (in a way): there really is no-one common cold. There are more than 200 different viruses that can cause a cold. This is why researchers have not come up with a vaccine that will protect you from a cold.

So, what’s the good news? The longer you live, the more of these viruses you are exposed to and the more immunities you build up. This is why children tend to get more colds (on average, six a year) than adults (except those who live with small children, who get, on average, six a year).

The bad news: there is no cure. Like influenza, a cold is a viral infection. The sad truth is neither can be successfully treated by antibiotics, which fight bacterial infections.

You know the symptoms: a runny or stuffy nose with discharge that is watery at first and may become thick and greenish-yellow as the virus runs its course, a sore throat, hoarseness, a dry cough, perhaps a low fever, general achiness, and fatigue.

A cold can last anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks. It depends, say the experts, on such factors as whether the particular strain you’ve picked up has ravaged you before and what kind of shape your immune system is in. Stress lowers resistance. Smoking is bad, especially if you develop a cough. Not getting enough rest or not eating well does not help.

And once your cold hits, it is contagious. Every time you sneeze, cough, or blow your nose, you will be spewing virus particles. This will make you unpopular, and for good reason. If you’re coughing and sneezing, it’s not a good idea to be at work.

There’s not much a doctor can do about a cold. So unless you have a chronic illness, such as heart or lung disease that may be complicated by a cold, or your symptoms become much worse, or they just won’t go away, it probably won’t do much good to sit in the waiting room with other victims of viral infections, trading contagions.

Mucus that turns from clear to colored is a sign of bacterial infection, but it’s not necessarily a sign that you should see a doctor immediately.

Both cold and flu patients should see a doctor if:

  • your fever is over 37.8 degrees for 5 or more days, or if it goes over 39.4 degrees
  • your symptoms are worse after 5 days
  • your cough lasts more than 2 weeks or produces bloody, brown or green mucus
  • you have trouble breathing or chest pains
  • you have pain in your ear or face
  • you have a very bad headache that won’t go away

The Flu

Influenza can have symptoms similar to a cold, only they come on faster and are more intense. Your fever climbs over 37.8 degrees, you get the chills, your muscles ache, your head feels like a poison-filled balloon. Typically, the cold-like symptoms develop a few days later — cough, stuffy nose, sore throat and the rest.

It all may last longer than the typical cold: a week or two. Easily. Although we tend to call any number of viral respiratory infections “the flu” if you’ve got influenza — real influenza — you’ll know it.

First of all, you’ll notice that 50 to 75 percent of your co-workers have it, too. It’s very contagious.

In general, influenza vaccinations are recommended for people aged 65 or more, and for people of any age who have chronic heart or lung diseases or other conditions that require ongoing care, who live in institutional quarters such as dormitories or nursing homes, or work in health-care fields. But everyone (except those with severe allergies to eggs) can get a flu shot.

Should they? It depends on whether you want to gamble on getting sick.

For young, healthy people, influenza is not, on average, particularly dangerous. It takes two-to-three weeks after a flu shot to build up immunity.

Remember, the flu vaccine guards against the three viral strains that cause true influenza. Getting the shot does not mean you will be protected against the other viruses that cause upper respiratory problems.

As with colds, deciding if you need to see a doctor when you’ve got the flu depends partially on who you are. If somebody has underlying heart disease or lung disease and they get an illness and it’s making them short of breath, they should be seen.

And if your fever goes away, only to return a few days later, you should call your doctor. You might have developed a secondary infection.

Allergy

What if your cold just won’t go away? You could be really unlucky and catch a series of them, or perhaps you’ve got allergies.

Allergies cause runny eyes, congestion, stuffiness, headaches, and some times wheezing. Usually, however, they are not accompanied by a fever or muscle aches.

But the real tip-off is the time of year. Allergies usually are seasonal. People with allergies know that when the eucalyptus, or acacia, or whatever they’re allergic to is out, they’ll have symptoms.

Secondary Infections

Do you have a dull pain in the cheekbones, upper teeth, forehead or around and behind the eyes?

It could be acute sinusitis, an infection or inflammation of the sinuses around the nose. Other symptoms include nasal congestion with greenish-yellow discharge, a headache that’s often worse when you bend forward, a dry cough and post-nasal drip.

Because their eustachian tubes are shorter and more horizontal, children are especially susceptible to middle-ear infections. If your infant has had a cold and is pulling at his or her ear, that’s a sign. Older children and adults will probably complain of earache.

Acute bronchitis is an infection or inflammation of the bronchial tubes in the lungs. With acute bronchitis, you’ll probably have what is called “a productive cough” — meaning you’ll be hacking up mucus. You might also have a sore throat, a low fever and a runny nose.

Acute bronchitis can lead to pneumonia.

Pneumonia

If you suspect pneumonia, call your doctor. Symptoms include:

  • fever
  • chills
  • pain in the chest, especially during coughing or when taking a deep breath
  • labored breathing
  • a productive cough with greenish-yellow or reddish-brown mucus, and great fatigue.
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