Is it a cold, allergies or flu?

Sneezing, coughing, congestion, itchy eyes, runny nose and feeling achy? So, could it be a cold, allergies or the flu? That is the question often asked by patients seeking relief.

Dr. Edward Dick, senior vice president of integrated health services at Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas, Inc., said it may be hard to determine initially if it’s a cold or flu. “Generally, flu is much more severe in symptoms with a higher fever. There are tests available in the healthcare provider’s office or lab that can detect flu, but these are not perfectly sensitive or specific.”

He said when prescribing antiviral medications to patients, it’s usually based on test results, the severity and types of symptoms and whether the patient visits their doctor within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. “In any given year, the types of flu circulating, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations may vary so patients would do well to check the CDC’s website and discuss their options with their doctor.”

Dr. Dick explained how some patients with severe allergies, like cedar fever, may feel like they have the flu because of chills. However, allergies alone shouldn’t cause a fever. “Presence of a fever or worsening symptoms is a good reason to see your doctor. Chronic or repeat infections would also warrant a visit to the doctor’s office.”

Many suffer from cedar fever during this time of the year and while some people can recognize the symptoms, not everyone suffers from allergies, which can make it confusing to distinguish between allergies, a cold or the flu.

The following are tips to help you better identify symptoms and when it’s time to see your doctor, according to the CDC:

ALLERGIES: If your body mistakes dust or pollen for germs and attacks as an immune response — as if fighting viruses or other pathogens — that’s when you will begin to experience allergy symptoms. What happens is your body releases substances such as histamine, resulting in inflammation and causing a runny nose, watery eyes, coughing, fatigue and sneezing. Allergies aren’t contagious like colds and the flu, but, usually, last longer and cause people to feel miserable. Allergies can be a risk factor for developing a sinus infection.

COLDS: Catching a cold can be serious in young children or patients with compromised immune systems but is less severe among most folks. Colds and flu are both respiratory illnesses but caused by different viruses. A cold is caused by several respiratory viruses like rhinovirus, enterovirus, adenovirus, parainfluenza, and others. These viruses rarely lead to serious complications and recovery is a lot quicker, unlike the flu. Cold symptoms vary and often include a runny nose, congestion, sore throat, coughing and sneezing. A fever is less common among symptoms. Taking over-the-counter medications can help make you feel better sooner.

FLU: It is also known as influenza and is the most serious of cold-weather respiratory viruses that circulate during this season. Flu symptoms include fever, severe fatigue, headache, dry cough, chills, chest pain, body aches, and a sore throat. The flu kills thousands in the U.S. annually, resulting in hundreds of thousands admitted to the hospital, as well as infecting millions. The hardest hit by the virus are young children, seniors, pregnant women, and those with chronic illnesses. If you’re experiencing difficulty breathing, chest or stomach pain, dizziness, confusion, or severe and persistent vomiting, you should seek medical attention soon after these symptoms start.

Dr. Dick said you can protect yourself and others by washing your hands often and using hand sanitizer; covering your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing into your sleeve or tissue; and avoiding contact with others infected with the virus will help reduce your chances of getting the flu, which is contagious. And, most importantly, get your annual flu shot.

Also, if you are sick with the flu, it’s best to stay home and away from crowds, family members, coworkers and those at high risk of flu complications.

Dr. Dick said if you’re currently sick with a cold, flu, or allergies, get plenty of rest so you can begin to feel better soon.

Methodist Healthcare Ministries is dedicated to creating access to healthcare for the uninsured through direct services, community partnerships and strategic grant-making in 74 counties across South Texas. Guided by its mission of "Serving Humanity to Honor God," the organization’s vision is to be the leader for improving wellness of the least served. The mission also includes Methodist Healthcare Ministries' one-half ownership of the Methodist Healthcare System, the largest healthcare system in South Texas, which creates a unique avenue to ensure that it continues to be a benefit to the community by providing quality care to all and charitable care when needed. For more information, visit