Sniffles, sneezing, aches, or fever?

How to tell whether your symptoms mean a cold, flu, or allergies.

mother holds tissue over child's noseWhen cold and flu season rolls around or when a situation like the recent swine flu outbreak occurs, parents might be able to breathe a little easier if they know how to tell the difference between cold, flu, and allergy symptoms so they’re better prepared to help their children—and themselves.

“It can be hard to differentiate between a cold and the flu, especially when your child isn’t old enough to tell you exactly what’s wrong,” saysSara Woods, M.D., a pediatrician with The Austin Diagnostic Clinic. “But if you know what to look for, you can usually make a pretty good guess. Of course, if you aren’t sure, your child’s doctor can give you a more certain diagnosis.”

 Flu symptoms vs. cold symptoms

The early symptoms of the flu and a cold can be similar, but there are some key characteristics of each one:

  • Onset 
    If the illness came on suddenly, it’s more likely to be the flu. Colds usually come on gradually.
  • Fever
    A fever usually accompanies the flu. It may be high and last up to four days. With young children, the fever may even be higher than 102° F. If you do have a fever with a cold, it is usually mild.
  • Headache
    If you or your child has an aching head, it could be the flu. Headaches are more common with the flu.
  • Body aches
    Significant body aches are more often a symptom of the flu.
  • Exhaustion
    The flu is usually accompanied by extreme feelings of exhaustion or tiredness. Colds can make you tired, but not nearly as tired as you feel with the flu.
  • Stuffy nose
    If you’re constantly blowing your nose, it is more likely to be a cold.
  • Sore throat
    A sore throat is more common with a cold.
  • Sneezing
    Sneezing is usually a cold symptom.

“If your child suddenly starts feeling bad, is running a high fever, and complains of body aches, you’re probably dealing with the flu,” says Dr. Woods.


Allergies are another possible cause of runny noses, sneezing, headaches, and congestion. If your child has these symptoms, without body aches or fever, it could be allergies.

“In Central Texas, there are lots of things to be allergic to,” says Dr. Woods. “Allergies often cause itchy, watery eyes and itchy noses. Colds and flu usually don’t cause those symptoms.”

Allergies can last for weeks or months, and usually occur around the same time every year if they are caused by pollen. Mold, dust mites, or pet allergies can be a year-round problem.


“Remember that colds and flu can’t be treated with antibiotics, because these illnesses are caused by viruses. Antibiotics are used to treat bacteria-caused illnesses,” emphasizes Dr. Woods. “Over-the-counter medications can help you feel better, but make sure to follow the dosage guidelines in the product instructions, especially for children.”

Colds usually go away by themselves within a week. The flu can last longer, up to two weeks. To help your body fight a cold or the flu, you should get enough rest and drink plenty of fluids. For the flu, prescription drugs like Tamiflu can be taken within two days of the first symptoms. It can help shorten the duration of the flu and reduce the severity of flu symptoms. Tamiflu is approved for use by children one year of age or older.

You can also help prevent the flu by ensuring that everyone in the family gets a flu shot, including children older than six months. However, flu shots may not protect you against all strains of the flu. When new flu strains develop, it can take time for scientists to produce a new vaccine.

“For allergies, the best defense is to avoid exposure to allergens,” says Dr. Woods. “But since that isn’t always possible, taking an antihistamine or using a prescription nasal spray works well for many people. Another option might be allergy shots, so talk with your doctor about what might work for you or your child.”

Are medications safe for kids?

After the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned last year that over-the-counter cold and cough medications can have adverse effects on very young children—including potentially life-threatening effects—many parents are worried about giving these drugs to young children. Major drug manufacturers pulled their products labeled for children younger than two from stores. But are these drugs safe for older children?

“The FDA hasn’t yet issued a ban on cold and cough medications for children,” says Dr. Woods. “But for children younger than six, cough and cold medications should only be administered when directed by a physician. Give children age-appropriate doses of ibuprofen or acetaminophen to help with pain, along with home remedies like hot showers and plenty of fluids.”

Parents may still have some of these cough and cold medications labeled for children younger than two years old in their medicine cabinets.

“It’s a good idea just to throw them away so you remember not to give them to children under six,” continues Dr. Woods. “Also, if any medications are expired, throw them away.”


  • Frequent hand washing
    One of the most important ways to prevent colds and flu is through frequent hand washing, so teaching your children this important skill can help keep illnesses at bay.
  • Disinfecting the home
    If a member of the family is already sick can help others from getting sick as well.
  • Drinking fluids and resting
    According to Dr. Woods, staying hydrated and getting enough sleep are also key tactics when it comes to prevention as well as treatment.

With any luck, you won’t have to worry about figuring out everyone’s symptoms at the same time—but if it comes up, knowing the signs and symptoms of common ailments can make you feel more confident that you’re treating the right illness. And that added confidence should make any parent feel a little better.