Sick? Do the snot test. Phlegm, cough and fever reveal how to treat a cold

It can be difficult to decipher if you or your children suffer from allergies or something more serious. When should you go to the doctor? When should you take medication and what should you take?

Kathryn Herb, practicing family nurse at American family care with locations in Cary, Raleigh, Apex, Fuquay-Varina and Wendell, answered our questions and explained the color of nasal mucus, the way your cough sounds and other factors that can provide clues.

1. The snot test

The color of your nasal mucus can indicate how sick you are. According to Herb, many patients see yellow or green mucus and automatically assume they need to see a doctor for an antibiotic, but that’s not always the case.

“Most people’s first thought is that they’ve developed a sinus infection … but often that color change can simply be a result of your body healing itself,” Herb said.

  • If you feel sick but your nasal mucus is clear, there’s a good chance you have allergies that can make you really sick. Allergies can be treated with antihistamines such as Zyrtec or Claritin and nasal sprays with a steroid.
  • If the mucus is light green or yellow, it means your body is fighting an infection. Over-the-counter medications, such as decongestants, can be used to treat symptoms, but this alone is not a sign that you need to see a doctor.
  • If the mucus is dark green or dark yellow, the infection has likely gotten worse. You may need to see the doctor.

Remember that the snot test can be used as an indicator, it is not a self-diagnosis.

Herb recommends basing your test on the color of your mucus in the middle of the day, as opposed to its color first thing in the morning.

“That will give a clear indication of whether it’s allergic nasal congestion rather than a cold, viral or bacterial sinusitis,” she said.

2. When to go to the doctor

Very often, it’s okay to treat your symptoms with over-the-counter medication and wait out a cold. According to Herb, it’s time to make an appointment with your doctor if:

  • Your symptoms persist or worsen after 5 to 7 days.
  • You have a pain in your face or ear. This could indicate an infection that may require an antibiotic.
  • You have lower respiratory symptoms, such as wheezing, shortness of breath, or chest rattles.

“An upper respiratory infection caused by a virus usually goes away between the fifth and seventh day,” Herb said. “So if it’s been over a week and you’re feeling worse and not better, I would encourage you to get checked out.”

3. Stop your cough

how does your cough sound like Coughing is part of clearing an upper respiratory tract infection, and expectorants like Mucinex or a combination pill like DayQuil can help clear mucus and phlegm from your chest.

A doctor can diagnose lower respiratory tract infections such as bronchitis or pneumonia. If your cough is accompanied by a rale, it could be bronchitis or possibly COVID-19. Do a self-test and call your doctor.

A cough with a high pitched wheeze can indicate inflamed or narrowed airways and may also require a visit to your doctor.

4. Do you have a fever? Here’s when to treat it

Fever is your body’s way of fighting infection, and waiting out a mild fever can help your body recover.

“Fever in and of itself is pretty protective,” Herb said. “It’s our body’s defense mechanism to literally burn off any pathogen, whether it’s a virus or a bacterium or even a fungal process.”

Fever at or above 102 degrees causes discomfort and may require medication, but Herb recommends treating the patient, not the number on the thermometer, both when dealing with children and your own symptoms.

“If your fever is 42 degrees but you’re feeling fine and eating and happy, I would argue not to treat that as long as you’re feeling well,” Herb said. “If you’ve had a mild fever and are really unwell, I would recommend taking some Tylenol and/or Ibuprofen to help you feel better.”

Allergies don’t cause a fever, but they can trigger sinus infections, which can lead to a fever.

Medication guide

There are so many over-the-counter medications out there, but Herb likes to keep it simple.

Oral antihistamines (Claritin, Zyrtec): These are good for allergy-related symptoms like watery, itchy eyes, itchy throats, and sneezing. Herb recommends using a nasal spray with a steroid to treat uncomfortable symptoms in addition to a daily allergy pill.

Decongestants (Sudafed): These are used to treat congested sinuses and nasal congestion. Decongestants can raise blood pressure, so people with a history of high blood pressure should check with their doctor first.

Expectorants (Mucinex): These are used to make the cough more productive and to clear phlegm and phlegm from the chest.

Pain and fever reducers (Tylenol and Advil): Used to treat fever and pain. Advil and Tylenol can be taken together or separately.

Combination pills (DayQuil and NyQuil) can simplify the medication process, Herb said, but be careful — read what’s in each oral medication you’re taking so you don’t accidentally overdose.

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