Allergies, Cold, Sinusitis, Flu -- Which Is It?

Health Professional

It's that time of year again, the time when a sniffly nose, head congestion, coughing, etc. often strike... and then stick around for days, or even weeks. There can be many reasons for this, what with being indoors more, socializing with more people through the holidays, inclement weather, new food, decorations and more due to the holidays, and so on.

The challenge comes in knowing what truly ails you, so that you can take steps to deal with it. So, this post will provide an overview of the various conditions that might produce symptoms during this season and how to manage, so that you can get and stay as healthy as possible.

Nasal Allergies

If you have allergies, then you're probably used to dealing with them on a regular basis, at least during certain seasons, if not year round. Most people associate seasonal allergies with pollen season, but the truth is allergy symptoms often increase during the holidays.

In my earlier holiday triggers post, I detailed some of the most common holiday triggers including Christmas trees, decorations, wood smoke and unfamiliar animals. If you are sensitive, you may notice that you are sneezing more, sniffling more or your eyes are itching and burning. These are all allergy symptoms. If you're also coughing or wheezing, then allergy asthma may be at work.

But if blowing your nose produces lots of thick, colored mucus, then there may be something else at work.

Common Cold

The common cold is a viral respiratory illness that lasts only for a few days, in most cases. Some of the symptoms of a cold are similar to allergy symptoms, so early on it can be hard to tell the difference. However, colds usually cause more constant head and sinus congestion than allergies do.

If you know you haven't come into contact with any of your allergy triggers and your nasal congestion just won't quit, then it might be a cold, especially if you are also running a fever, though fevers are usually low grade. Other symptoms common with a cold (but not with allergies) are sore throat, fatigue and aches and pains.

Colds are also highly contagious, so if other members of your family or social circle are having the same symptoms as you are, you may be passing around a cold. Colds usually last between 2 to 14 days. So, if your symptoms last longer than that, it might be an allergy, not a cold.

The Flu

The flu, or influenza, is another common respiratory virus, but unlike colds, which can occur all year long, the flu is most common during the winter months, particularly from January through March.

Symptoms of the flu are similar to those noted above of a cold, but it's mostly a matter of intensity (and which viruses are at work too). A cold may make you feel lousy, but chance are, the flu will make you feel awful -- for a full week or more.

A flu often begins with a high fever, as well as chills and severe loss of energy. The fever usually subsides within a day or two, but may last up to 5 days. Sore throat is common, and the flu can progress into ear infections and even pneumonia.

A dry, hacking cough is common with the flu and can last for weeks after you feel better otherwise. The flu is also highly contagious.


Sinusitis may start out feeling a lot like nasal allergies, but usually produces more intense congestion with greenish nasal discharge. Other symptoms include sinus area pain, eye pain, headache, and a nighttime cough. You might also have a fever, bad breath and feel lousy overall, or notice bad breath.

Chronic sinusitis is harder to diagnose. It has the same symptoms as those above, but they are milder. However, the symptoms usually last for longer than 8 weeks. People with allergies are often prone to chronic sinusitis.

The good news is all of these conditions are treatable, and your doctor should be able to decide which one you actually have. So, if you're noticing symptoms but you're not sure which condition may be at work, talk with your doctor.

The flu can also be prevented by taking an annual flu shot. Flu shots can be taken right through flu season, but will provide the most benefit when obtained by the end of each year.

To prevent the flu and colds from spreading, use good handwashing techniques and avoid people you know are sick, if you can.If you have allergies, work to avoid your triggers and take any allergy medicine your doctor prescribes.

When you take action, you can prevent illness from ruling your life -- whether it's allergies, a cold, the flu or even sinusitis