Research & Education

Deciphering Symptoms: Cold, Flu, or Allergy

Do you have a stuffy or runny nose, a cough, or a sore throat? These upper respiratory symptoms may be the first sign of an allergy, a cold, or the flu. Although more severe cases of respiratory illnesses may be easier to identify as an infection rather than an allergy, milder cases can cause you to be uncertain of the best treatment and course of action. Recognizing some of the differentiating symptoms may help you determine the best steps for action. 

Allergy symptoms typically include a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, an itchy throat, itchy eyes, and/or postnasal drainage. Typically, people with environmental or seasonal allergies are usually aware of their triggers or symptoms, but sometimes severe cases can be quite similar to an infectious disease such as the cold or flu. One of the main signs that your symptoms may be due to allergies is a lack of fever.

Several respiratory viruses may trigger the common cold, which is generally a milder illness compared with the flu and other viral respiratory illnesses. With a cold, you may experience a stuffy nose or a runny nose and sneezing, symptoms similar to an allergy. However, with a cold, one may typically have more sinus congestion, a cough, a headache, and/or a sore throat. Although the flu is caused by an influenza virus, it shares many of the symptoms of a cold. With the flu, the symptoms are usually more severe: fatigue, muscle aches, weakness, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, and high fevers. You may also experience nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.

If you experience any of these symptoms along with a fever, it is always best to check with your doctor to determine whether you have developed allergies, a cold, the flu, or another condition. Maintaining a strong immune system can help reduce the risk of developing some infections or at least reduce the severity of the illness. Vitamins A, C, D, and E, and zinc are well known for providing immune support, which may also be beneficial during upper respiratory infections. 

Many traditional remedies for upper respiratory infections remain popular today. Generally, these herbal remedies rely on the antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, immune-modulating, and antimicrobial properties of the plants. For example, anthocyanins from black elderberries have been shown to potentially impart immunomodulating and antiviral effects. A meta-analysis found that supplementation with black elderberry substantially reduced upper respiratory symptoms. Likewise, echinacea exhibits immunomodulating and antiviral properties, including those against several viruses. Echinacea has been shown to be effective in the management of the common cold and flu. 

Some herbal and over-the-counter remedies support the immune system to respond to multiple respiratory illnesses, but many are better for certain ailments. Thus, recognizing the culprit of your symptoms can help you decide if you need to see a doctor to determine what treatment protocol may work best to help alleviate your symptoms.

By Kendra Whitmire, MS, CNS