Your cold and flu symptoms, explained

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Published October 17, 2012

| Real Simple

There's a reason for each and every sniffle, sneeze, ache, and pain. Learn why your body behaves the way it does, and discover the quickest ways to feel better.

The Symptom: Sneezing
What it means:
Your body is expelling bacteria and other particles with a sudden, involuntary burst of air. Don’t suppress a sneeze, as your body is trying to evict the irritants.

When to worry: Almost never, but if sneezing interferes with your life or persists after other symptoms are gone, talk to your doctor to find out if an allergy might be the cause.

Home remedies: Using anti-viral tissues helps prevent the spread of viruses. No tissue? Sneeze into your upper sleeve, not your hands. You’ll be less likely to pass germs along.

Over-the-counter remedies: Some antihistamines (the sedating varieties) can help cut down on the sneeze reflex. But most experts advise you to leave this fairly innocuous symptom untreated.

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The Symptom: Chills and Fever
What it means:
Chills are the way the body generates heat when it feels cold. They usually precede a fever, the body’s method for defending itself by raising its temperature to fight a virus.

When to worry: Call your doctor if your temperature rises above 102 degrees, if a fever persists for 72 hours without breaking, or if you also have shortness of breath or dizziness.

Home remedies: To stay hydrated, sip your favorite liquids. Sponging off with warm water may also give you relief.

Over-the-counter remedies: Acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve) can lower a fever that’s making you uncomfortable.

The Symptom: Sore Throat
What it means: Mucus is dripping into the back of your throat, causing irritation and inflammation.

When to worry: If you have severe difficulty swallowing or breathing, call your doctor to rule out a more serious illness, such as a bacterial infection.

Home remedies: Gargle with warm salt water. Soothe a scratchy throat with liquids, such as caffeine-free tea and broth, or cool down a fiery one with an ice pop.

Over-the-counter remedies: Acetaminophen or ibuprofen will help decrease inflammation.

The Symptom: Runny Nose
What it means: Your body has stepped up mucus production to remove the cold or flu viruses from your nasal passages.

When to worry: If your health doesn’t improve after one week, you could have a bacterial sinus infection, which may require treatment with an antibiotic.

Home remedies: Drink fluids to thin mucus. Chicken soup may help reduce inflammation. Sniff gently into a tissue, as blowing hard can lead to sinus problems.

Over-the-counter remedies: Use a saline spray to help irrigate your nasal passages, or use an oral decongestant or an antihistamine (like Drixoral or Benadryl).

The Symptom: Sinus Pressure
What it means: Mucus has congested the nasal passages and may be trapped in the sinuses because they are not draining properly.

When to worry: If you have a fever of more than 102 degrees, you may have a bacterial infection, which can be treated with antibiotics.

Home remedies: Keep your sinuses moist by using a humidifier, or stand over a sink filled with hot water.

Over-the-counter remedies: A decongestant spray (such as Dristan or Afrin) can help ease congestion and swelling.

The Symptom: Cough
What it means:
A reflex that keeps the throat clear, a cough is triggered when excessive mucus (or some other irritant) has irritated the nerve endings in the respiratory tract.

When to worry: If you’re short of breath and coughing up blood or discolored mucus, you may have bronchitis, sinusitis, or pneumonia.

Home remedies: Skip the medicated cough drops; they have been proven ineffective. Instead, soothe an irritated throat with your favorite hard candy, or drink warm fluids.

Over-the-counter remedies: Products with pseudoephedrine work but can make you sleepy. Nondrowsy versions with phenylephrine aren’t as effective. Naproxen may reduce throat inflammation.

The Symptom: Swollen Glands
What it means: Your lymph nodes are producing an army of infection-fighting cells to battle the invading virus.

When to worry: If your glands remain enlarged for several weeks after a cold or the flu is gone, that could be, in rare cases, a sign of a more serious illness, such as lymphoma.

Home remedies: There’s not much you can do to reduce swollen glands. They should return to normal within a few weeks.

Over-the-counter remedies: Other cold or flu symptoms will probably bother you more, but acetaminophen or ibuprofen can ease any discomfort caused by the engorged glands.

The Symptom: Body Aches
What it means: More common with the flu, allover aches are a sign your body is releasing chemicals that help your white blood cells fight off infection.

When to worry: Only if the aches are incapacitating, which is rarely the case with a cold or the flu.

Home remedies: Get plenty of rest, and take warm baths to soothe your muscles―or try using a heating pad or a heated water bottle.

Over-the-counter remedies: Acetaminophen or ibuprofen will relieve the pain.

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