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Flu vs. Cold vs. Allergies: Which Do You Have?

Do you have sniffles? A headache? A fever? All three? As flu season kicks into gear, it’s important to know whether you’re experiencing the symptoms of influenza, a cold or allergies. While the outcome of flu vs. cold vs. allergies may be the same for you (feeling awful), whether or not you can continue to work at full capacity without infecting your coworkers varies with the diagnosis.

Because some of the symptoms are common, determining which ailment you have is often a question of duration and severity. Here are seven questions to consider that may help you determine whether you have the flu, a cold or allergies.

1. What's your body temperature?

  • Normal
  • Slightly elevated
  • High

You may have a low-grade fever with a cold or allergies, but it's rare. A higher fever (102° to 104°F or above) is generally a symptom of the flu or other more serious illnesses. Employees with a high fever should stay out of the workplace until 24 hours after fever symptoms begin to weaken. You can often reduce a fever by taking acetaminophen or other over-the-counter medication.

2. How long have you felt weak, fatigued or generally run down?

  • Less than two weeks
  • Several weeks or months
  • A few weeks following a period of high fever

Flu or cold symptoms can last up to a few weeks. Although fatigue as a result of the flu can persist for up to three weeks, you're usually fine to return to work once the major symptoms and any fever have subsided. On the other hand, without proper treatment, allergy symptoms can last for an entire season. That doesn’t mean you have to stop working, though.

3. Do you have a cough?

  • Yes, and it keeps me up at night
  • Yes, a mild hacking cough
  • No

A cough is a common cold symptom, but a severe cough can be a symptom of the flu. Some allergies involve an itch at the back of the throat and post-nasal drip, and that can cause intermittent coughing. Relieve cough symptoms by drinking hot tea with honey and lemon, sucking on cough drops or taking cough syrup. However, if you have a prolonged or serious cough, you should see a doctor.

4. Do you have a headache?

  • On occasion, often related to thirst or lack of sleep
  • Yes, a constant ache

Headaches can be related to allergies, the flu or colds. If your headache is accompanied by body aches or nasal congestion, it's likely due to the flu.

5. How would you rate your general achiness?

  • Not present or very mild
  • Moderate
  • Severe enough to lay you out

Severe aches and pains are signs of the flu. A cold or allergies can make you feel unwell, but you can usually still function normally for several hours at a stretch. To reduce the aches associated with any of these conditions, take a warm bath or shower, take ibuprofen, and get plenty of rest.

6. What's the state of your nasal discharge?

  • Runny, clear mucus
  • Congestion with thick yellow or green mucus
  • Little or no mucus

Yellow or green mucus may be a sign of a cold (but not always), while runny, clear mucus is associated with allergies. Flu symptoms can involve a stuffy nose, although it's less common than with a cold.

7. How do your eyes feel?

  • Hot and tired
  • Fine, normal
  • Itchy and watery

Itchy, watery eyes are usually a sign of allergies. Cold symptoms rarely affect the eyes, but if yours feel hot or tired, you could be running a fever or have the flu.

Play It Safe

If you don't know whether your symptoms are the result of flu or cold, it's best to play it safe. Stay home for a day and get some rest. But if it’s just allergies, then you may want to avoid using up your paid time off. And, anytime you experience severe or prolonged symptoms, you should seek medical attention.

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