Cold, flu, sinusitis and allergies all cause respiratory problems.
Differentiating which illness you have and how to relieve your pain and misery can be tricky, according to Steven Joyce, a physician with Mercy Medical Center Internal Medicine & Pediatrics.
Symptoms of allergies and the common cold may seem similar, according to Joyce.
If you've recently been exposed to pollen, trees and animals and are experiencing itchy watery eyes, sneezing and a tickle in your throat, he said, suspect allergies. With some allergies, symptoms can progress even further and include wheezing, shortness of breath and hives.
"What typically will set allergies apart from a serious bacterial infection is that you don't have fevers with it," he said. "Allergies are not infectious."
Cold and flu are caused by viruses. Sinus infections can be caused by viruses or bacteria.
Joyce said antibiotics don't cure upper respiratory viral infections, which often consist of runny nose, cough, headache and minor muscle aches.
"We way over treat colds and sinus infections and such," he said. "We still way overuse antibiotics. Almost all of those things are viruses and they need to run their course whether you have time to be sick or not."
A viral sinus infection, Joyce said, should not be treated with the antibiotic Azithromycin, otherwise known as Z-Pak, unless symptoms have been present for two weeks. By that time, Joyce said bacteria have likely set up shop, meaning the infection is now bacterial in nature.
Another way to differentiate bacterial sinus infections from viral sinus infections is location of symptoms.
Major congestion and pain on both sides of the head, Joyce said indicate a viral sinus infection. With bacterial sinus infections, pain and nasal congestion is concentrated on one side of the head with fevers spiking to 104 degrees.
Influenza magnifies the symptoms of upper respiratory infections.
Fevers are high spiking, muscle aches are deep and patients say they feel like they've been hit by truck, according to Joyce.
"If you're asking me if you have influenza, you don't have influenza," he said. "People who come in looking like stink, they have influenza."
Last week, Joyce said the hospital was inundated with calls from people who said they had been exposed to the flu.
There's nothing that can be done, according to Joyce. Tamiflu, an antiviral medication used to treat flu symptoms, he said, is being over-prescribed, causing supplies to run short in Sioux City.
People with underlying medical conditions complicated by influenza such as asthma, emphysema and diabetes, he said, should receive Tamiflu. Those under 2 years of age and over 65, as well as the obese are also at highest risk.
"Aside from those groups, the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) doesn't recommend prevention and treatment with Tamiflu," he said.
Tamiflu should be taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms and it will only shorten the course of the disease by one or two days, according to Joyce.
This year, he said some people who have been vaccinated against influenza are testing positive for the virus, even though the vaccine looks like a good match.
"Perhaps the virus mutated a little bit, so it's not a perfect match," he said. "It's still pretty good. Those people who get influenza despite having received the vaccine are going to have a less severe course."
If you develop symptoms associated with cold, flu, allergies or sinus infection, Joyce said there are numerous over the counter medications on the market that may lessen them. He recommends calling your doctor for a recommendation.
A neti pot, a water or saline nasal irrigation system, Joyce said is a safe option for those suffering from a sinus infection.
"That can help keep secretions thin, but it's not pleasant," he said. "It can very helpful."
Should you stay home from work or school?
Joyce said it depends what you have an how sick you are.
If you're suffering from allergies or a bacterial sinus infection, which are not contagious, he said you're safe to continue your daily routine.
A fever signals the presence of a virus that you could spread to other people, so Joyce recommends staying home.
"For your health and those around you, you ought to stay home and not go to work or school," he said.