Cold, flu or allergies?

Many of us are still in a celebratory mood after ringing in the New Year. But for others, it’s been a real struggle trying to get some relief from runny noses, itchy eyes, body aches, coughing and congestion. Could it be you’re dealing with a cold or the flu? Maybe it’s “cedar fever,” the allergic response to the choking haze of mountain cedar pollen, which is most prevalent in South Texas during the winter season.

If you’re like me, I suffer from cedar fever every year around this time. I can pretty much recognize the symptoms but not everyone suffers from allergies so it can be confusing to distinguish whether it is the flu, a cold, or allergies. Here are some tips to help better identify your symptoms and know when you should see a doctor:

Influenza: Better known as the flu, influenza is the most serious of the cold-weather respiratory viruses that circulate this time of year. Symptoms include fever, headache, body aches, severe fatigue, chills, sore throat, and a dry cough. Influenza kills thousands of people each year in the U.S., results in hundreds of thousands admitted to hospitals, and infects millions. Most frequently, the hardest hit are young children, seniors, pregnant women and those with chronic illnesses. This flu season is severe, and unfortunately the protection offered by this year’s vaccine is less than ideal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that all hospitalized patients and all outpatients at high risk for serious complications should be treated as soon as possible with one of three available influenza antiviral medications if influenza is suspected, regardless of a patient’s vaccination status and without waiting for confirmatory testing. If you have difficulty breathing, a fever over 100.4°F or 38.0°C, chest or stomach pain, dizziness/confusion, or severe and persistent vomiting, you should consider seeking medical attention soon after the symptoms begin.

Colds: A long list of other respiratory viruses (rhinovirus, enterovirus, adenovirus, parainfluenza, and more) also circulate this time of year, and often wind up falling under the umbrella catchphrase of “colds.” Although some of these can also be serious in children or immunocompromised patients, they generally cause less-severe illness among most people. Symptoms vary, but often include nasal symptoms like a runny nose and congestion, sneezing, coughing, and sore throat. Fever is also less common among cold symptoms. Unlike influenza, these viruses rarely lead to severe complications and recovery is often quicker. Over-the-counter medications can help ease symptoms of a cold, along with plenty of rest and fluids.

Allergies: Allergy symptoms occur when the body mistakes harmless substances like dust or pollen for germs and attacks them as an immune response, just as when fighting viruses or other pathogens. This causes your body to release substances such as histamine, which results in inflammation that leads to a runny nose, sneezing, itchy and watery eyes, coughing, and fatigue. Unlike colds, allergies are not contagious but do tend to last longer and can make people feel miserable. Allergies may also occur at any time of the year. Unfortunately for San Antonio residents, the timing of cedar fever also overlaps much of the cold and flu season. A number of treatment options are available, including nasal rinses, antihistamines, decongestants, nasal steroids, and even allergy shots.

As I mentioned earlier, this year’s flu season is a bit worse than usual. According to our partners at the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, we’ve seen a 34 percent increase in patients with flu-like symptoms compared to last year. A similar increase has been seen across Texas and the country where influenza is now widespread.

One reason may be a less-effective vaccine. International medical experts must decide which four flu viruses will be included in each year’s flu vaccine several months in advance of the flu season to allow sufficient time for production and distribution. This season, the primary flu strain, an A/H3N2-type virus, appears to have mutated (or “drifted”) since that time. While that makes the vaccine less effective than usual, experts also agree that people should still get their flu shot. Keep in mind, influenza can be very serious, so having some protection is better than none. Also, be sure your kids are vaccinated. Six children in Texas have died from flu since December, and the CDC states that the vaccine effectiveness against the A/H3N2 strain is higher in children than adults.

You can also protect yourself, your family and others by practicing good hand-hygiene (washing your hands and using hand sanitizer), using appropriate protective equipment, and covering your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing with your sleeve or a tissue. If you are sick, stay home and away from crowds and family members who are at highest risk of flu complications.

If you’ve caught the flu or a cold, or are struggling with seasonal allergies, I hope you feel better soon. Here’s to a happy and healthy 2015.

Dr. Bryan Alsip is executive vice president and chief medical officer of University Health System

Photo by geralt/pixabay

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