How to tell if it's the flu, allergies or a common cold

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by JIM BERGAMO / KVUE News and photojournalist SCOTT MCKENNEY

Bio | Email | Follow: @JimB_KVUE

kvue.com

Posted on January 9, 2014 at 7:26 PM

Updated Friday, Jan 10 at 4:54 PM

AUSTIN -- Doctors say the initial symptoms of a common cold, bronchitis, the flu and cedar fever are extremely similar, so getting an early, correct diagnosis can save you sick time and may even save your life.

What's in the air these days in Central Texas? Just about everything that can make you sick.

"This is a perfect storm of respiratory problems in Austin," said Bill Howland, M.D., an allergist with the Allergy and Asthma Center of Austin. "There's viruses, bronchitis, influenza and high cedar pollen count all together, so it is confusing for the average person to know what problems they have."

It's certainly been a problem for Judy Shoemaker.

"I kept treating myself like I was getting the flu, but it wasn't the flu," Shoemaker said. "It was allergies, so they do feel very similar."  

Howland said cedar fever is a misnomer, because sufferers don't experience fever.

"A mother of a five-year old called us this week and said her child had a fever of 103.8," said Howland. "She asked if she should take her child to the coast to get away from the cedar allergy.  We said immediately, 'Contact your physician, because this could be flu.'"  

So, how do you know if you have a viral illness such as flu or bronchitis or an allergy?

"One thing I tell my patients is, if you have allergies you should at least get somewhat better with allergy medicines," said Howland.

Howland said flu symptoms should be clear.

"You feel terrible," he said.  "I mean, you feel terrible. It's much worse than any cold you've ever had. It's worse than any kind of allergy you've ever had. You don't even want to get out of bed."

Howland said if you don't feel that bad, it's likely you have some sort of allergy or viral infection that can be treated conservatively. Shoemaker says she's already learned those lessons after trial and error.

"Now that I know I have allergies, the first thing I do is I check the pollen count," said Shoemaker. "If the pollen count is very high, then I'll more likely think it's [a] reaction to the cedar. If the pollen count isn't agreeing with how I'm feeling, then I'll go to the doctor."

Howland says to visit a doctor early if you suspect your illness is viral, especially if you think it's the flu, because flu treatments work best if treated within the first 48 to 72 hours.

Go here for more information on the Allergy and Asthma Center of Austin.

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