Flu, Cold, or Winter Allergies: What's Taking You Down?

ID your illness during flu season with this Q&A, so you can get better faster

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Colds, flus, and winter allergies can have similar symptoms, making it hard to diagnose what's taking you-or your spouse or kids-down. But mistaking the source of your sniffles can delay you getting the right treatment, which can be dangerous-even deadly, as the tragic news of 17-year-old Shannon Zwanziger's death after a week-long battle with the flu shows. This Q&A will help you ID the illness so you can get better much faster.

1. How quickly did your symptoms appear?

a) Fast. One second I felt fine, the next it was like I'd been run over by a truck.

b) Over the course of a day or two. I woke up feeling all right, but by the next morning I was feeling pretty lousy.

2. Do you have a fever?

a) Yes

b) No

3. Do you have muscle aches and pains, especially in your neck and head?

a) Yes

b) No

4. What color and consistency is your mucus?

a) Yellow or greenish and thick

b) Clear or white and thin

5. Do you have chest congestion or a dry cough?

a) Yes

b) No, but my throat is sore and itchy

6. Are your eyes itchy or watery?

a) No

b) Yes

As you answer the questions below, calculate your score,giving yourself two points for each A and one point for each B. 11 to 12 points:

It's the flu

This is a viral infection that comes on quickly, lasts for up to two weeks, and causes intense symptoms (such as fever, muscle aches, and chest congestion), explains Nadim Bikhazi, M.D., an ear, nose, and throat specialist at the Ogden Clinic in Utah. If you can see your doctor within 48 hours of initial symptoms, a prescription medication like Tamiflu will ease symptoms and shorten the duration of the illness. Outside that window, however,rely on over-the-counter drugs like ibuprofen and stay hydrated. And while your achiness and fatigue may make you want to stay in bed, the only time you really need to take sick days is when you're coughing and sneezing, adds Bikhazi, since they can quickly pass on your germs-and your flu-to the people around you.

8 to 10 points:

It's a cold

While they're also caused by a virus, colds cause less severe symptoms than the flu. For the most part, OTC decongestants like Sudafed and cold medications like Tylenol Cold & Flu Caplets will be enough to treat issues like a stuffed-up nose or tight chest, says Bikhazi. Drink plenty of fluids, and stay home from work and cancel social commitments until you're over your symptoms- particularly germ-spreading coughing, wheezing, and sneezing-which should take about two to four days.

6 to 7 points:

It's winter allergies

The first frost kills most pollen producers, but indoor allergens like mold spores or dust mites can still trigger sniffling and sneezing. Symptoms come on suddenly and gradually worsen during the period you're exposed to the irritant, which is why episodes that last a week or more aren't uncommon. The upside? Allergies are noncontagious and are easily remedied, says Bikhazi. Over-the-counter antihistamines (like Zyrtec) and a steroid nasal spray (like Nasacort)should have you feeling better within hours.

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