All of us have experienced a cold or an allergy at least one time in our lives, some times more severe than others. It’s important to know that what may appear to be the common cold or a familiar allergy may actually be a more serious condition like the flu or even pneumonia. Learning to recognize the differences between the signs and symptoms of these conditions will enable a quicker and more accurate diagnosis and treatment plan to be established.

Allergies

Allergies occur when your immune system mistakes a harmless substance as a germ. To protect your body from the irritant or allergen, your immune system produces IgE antibodies (chemicals designed to react to allergens) and triggers histamine. Histamine is the same chemical released when you have a cold. The longer the exposure to the allergen, the longer the symptoms last. Common allergens that produce cold-like symptoms include dust mites, pollen and mold spores. Allergies are not contagious, and they are sometimes nothing more than an annoyance. Other times, they can lead to complications including upper airway breathing obstructions. Discuss your symptoms with your MDVIP-affiliated physician as he or she may prescribe a histamine blocker to control your allergies.

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, you can control allergies and reduce dust mites by wiping surfaces, washing bedding and vacuuming on a regular basis. If you have a pet with fur or feathers, keep him or her out of your bedroom. Prevent pollen build-up inside your home by keeping your windows shut, running your air conditioner and changing air filters as recommended. Fixing leaky faucets and limiting the household plants in your home can preclude mold spores, as can using a dehumidifier. Additional suggestions include keeping car windows closed while driving, staying indoors during pollen peak times, which are between 10 am and 4 pm, and showering after spending time outdoors.

Telltale Allergy Symptoms
  • Watery and/or itchy eyes
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Coughing
  • Runny nose with clear mucus
  • Fatigue


Telltale Allergy Signs
  • Symptoms last as long as there is exposure to the allergen, which can be days or months
  • Symptoms can occur anytime throughout the year; sometimes you will notice they only occur during a specific time of the year and begin immediately with contact to the allergen.

The Common Cold

Hundreds of different viruses can cause a common cold. Virus germs may be airborne or linger on objects such as telephones, doorknobs, television remotes and appliance handles. Once a virus germ enters your body, it adheres to one of your cells and multiplies. In response, your immune system triggers an attack on the infection by releasing the chemical histamine. Histamine produces symptoms such as sneezing, runny nose and coughing to expel the virus from your body. Colds are contagious and most of the time need to run their course. Proper nutrition, adequate sleep and drinking plenty of fluids may speed the recovery process. Over-the-counter medications can relieve symptoms, but if your cold is causing health complications, it's best to schedule an appointment with your MDVIP-affiliated doctor. Because colds are viral, your physician will probably let the cold take its course, and he or she may only prescribe medications to control symptoms and prevent secondary infections.

Tips to prevent colds include strengthening your immune system by exercising regularly, managing your stress and sleeping eight hours per night. Do your best to avoid smoking and limit alcohol consumption. Good nutrition is an important element. Gold-star foods include yogurt (studies indicate that regular yogurt consumption may prevent a cold), dark green, red and yellow vegetables and plenty of fluids. Regular hand washing, especially after sneezing, coughing or touching commonly used items will help reduce germs. Lastly, do not touch your eyes, nose or mouth; this is how cold germs enter the body.

Telltale Common Cold Symptoms
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Coughing
  • Runny nose with yellow mucus
  • Fatigue
  • Aches
  • Low-grade fever on rare occasions

Telltale Common Cold Signs
  • Symptoms last between three and 14 days.
  • Symptoms can occur anytime throughout the year but are most common during the winter months and usually begin several days after becoming infected.

Influenza

Influenza, more commonly known as the flu, is a viral respiratory infection. Contrary to popular belief, the flu never affects the gastrointestinal system in adults. Therefore, if you are experiencing abdominal ailments, it is probably not the flu. Typical symptoms involve high fevers, muscular aches/pains and exaggerated cold symptoms. Unfortunately, the symptoms can be severe enough that complications such as bronchitis, sinusitis, ear infections and pneumonia are common, which causes most people suffering from the flu to require medical intervention. Antibiotics do not combat the flu because it is viral. However, your physician may prescribe medications to control symptoms and prevent complications. More than 200,000 people are hospitalized annually from the flu and approximately 23,000 will die from the flu or its complications if not treated properly.

Every year between autumn and spring, there is a seasonal flu outbreak. Unfortunately, the strain changes each year because the flu virus is able to mutate, which makes it tougher for our bodies to fight off the virus because we never develop immunity to it.

Preventing the flu can be complex. Aside from the flu shots that may be recommended, you should employ the same tactics used to prevent colds, and clean your house as if you were controlling allergies, including disinfecting sinks, bathroom areas and commonly touched items several times a week.


Telltale Symptoms
  • Extreme exhaustion
  • Fevers (usually between 100° and 102° F for adults and up to 104° F for children)
  • Weakness
  • Headache
  • Chest congestion
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Sore throat
  • Stuffy nose
  • Moderate to severe muscle aches


Telltale Signs
  • Extreme symptoms such as the fever and exhaustion can last for several days
  • The remaining symptoms, particularly fatigue and weakness, can last several weeks.

SHOULD YOU GET A FLU SHOT?

Most people are able to fight off the flu, and only 5 to 20 percent of Americans will contract the flu each year. Multiple vaccine options exist today and are recommended based on an individual's risk for complications.

Standard or high dose shots are recommended for those at high-risk:
  • Children between the ages of 6 months and 4 years
  • Children between the ages of 6 months and 18 years who are receiving long-term aspirin therapy
  • Pregnant women
  • People 50 years of age or older
  • People with chronic conditions such as lung disease, heart disease, diabetes or cancer
  • People with weakened immune systems (e.g., HIV/AIDS, organ transplants)
  • People living in nursing homes or long-term care facilities
  • People living with or working with high-risk individuals (e.g., health care workers, caregivers)
The flu shot is not recommended for those with egg or chicken allergies, a bleeding disorder, a past hypersensitivity to the vaccine, infants younger than six months of age and those recovering from a fever. Individuals who developed Guillain-Barré syndrome a couple of weeks after a flu shot (an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks the peripheral nervous system causing nerve damage and muscle weakness) a couple of weeks after a flu shot should avoid getting another vaccine.

The flu vaccine given as a nasal spray contains weakened, live flu virus and is only recommended for healthy people between the ages of 2 and 49.

Your MDVIP-affiliated doctor is the best resource for determining if and when you should get a flu shot, and if a shot is necessary, he or she will most likely recommend that you receive it in the office versus a walk-in clinic or pharmacy. 

Pneumonia

Another health ailment associated with cold and flu season is pneumonia. Pneumonia is a lung infection that can cause a host of serious symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain and a rapid heart rate. Virus or bacterial germs cause pneumonia and people breathe these germs into the lungs. Some cases of pneumonia have milder symptoms, which doctors typically diagnose as “walking pneumonia.” Double pneumonia refers to pneumonia in both lungs. Some older individuals who contract pneumonia do not have a fever; however, they may become confused, even delirious.

Pneumonia is diagnosed with a chest X-ray, and medical intervention is necessary. Many cases of pneumonia are able to be treated at home; however, because pneumonia can worsen a lung disease and cause complications, some people require hospitalization. For bacterial pneumonia, physicians prescribe antibiotics but for viral pneumonia, some physicians let it run its course. If you are prone to complications, your physician may prescribe an antibiotic to prevent a secondary infection.

You tend to be more susceptible to these germs after recovering from a cold or the flu when your body’s immune system is worn out from fighting off the previous ailment. Therefore, prevent pneumonia by using the same measures as preventing colds and flu. If you suffer from a chronic disease such as heart disease, lung disease, cancer or diabetes, you need to take extra precautions to prevent pneumonia. Manage your disease by following your physician’s orders. If you meet the criteria, which you can discuss at your next doctor’s visit, consider a pneumonia vaccine. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that individuals 65 years of age and older with a chronic disease or weakened immune system should receive the pneumonia vaccine, which like most vaccines usually lasts up to 10 years.

Telltale Symptoms
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Rapid breathing
  • Coughing
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Nausea/vomiting


Telltale Signs
  • Some symptoms like a fever that are treatable with aspirin or antibiotics may last several days.
  • Other symptoms such as fatigue and weakness may last a couple of weeks.

Surprisingly, colds, allergies, influenza and pneumonia can occur throughout the year and can cause a host of uncomfortable symptoms, a decrease in productivity and numerous health complications. If you learn how to best control these illnesses, you will not only feel better, but you will be able to quickly recognize if you require care from your MDVIP-affiliated physician and ultimately avoid a more complex situation.