Is It a Cold, the Flu or Something Else?

What's causing my symptoms?

With flu season in full swing, it's important to know what ails you (so you can help stop the spread by staying home). But how do you really know if you have the flu—swine or seasonal—or if it's just another cold or an allergy?

Use our handy sympt-o-meter.

Seasonal flu
Key symptom: Fever that comes on fast

Best fix: Acetaminophen or ibuprofen

If your fever hits 101°F or 102°F and comes with chest discomfort plus major aches and exhaustion, it’s probably the seasonal flu, says Dr. Neil Schachter author of The Good Doctor’s Guide to Colds and Flu. Take pain pills for fever and aches, rest, and drink lots of liquids. Those at high risk—pregnant, elderly, or chronically ill—may need antiviral meds such as Tamiflu or Relenza.

Swine flu or H1N1
Key symptoms: Fever plus nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting

Best fix: Acetaminophen or ibuprofen

The H1N1 virus feels a lot like seasonal flu (although possibly milder), but often comes with gastro issues, which make it even easier to get dehydrated. Drink plenty of fluids, and follow standard flu treatment. Stay home (this flu is highly contagious), and call your doc if you’re in the high risk category or if you’re not better after a week. Any flu can develop into pneumonia.


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Key symptom: Nasal congestion

Best fix: Rest, drink a lot of water

If you have a runny nose, a little cough, maybe a low-grade fever (below 100°F)—it?s probably a winter cold, which isn't associated with body aches or high fever like the flu. Staying hydrated will boost your immune system and help relieve congestion. Cold medicine? It might help you feel better, but it won?t cure you any sooner. Plus, it might lead to side effects like dry mouth or sleep trouble.

Key symptom: Itchiness (eyes, nose, and throat)

Best fix: Antihistamines or a Neti pot

Allergies are less troublesome in winter than spring and fall, but if you’re sneezy, itchy, and runny, you may be having an attack. It’s smart to keep on hand the allergy meds that work best for you, no matter the season. If you have chronic irritation, try a neti pot, a teapot-like tool that irrigates your sinuses and removes offenders, or a saline nasal spray.