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What Your Sniffles Could Mean

Is it just allergies....or something worse?

They might come on suddenly. Or maybe they start with that telltale scratchy tickle at the back of your throat. You might feel kind of blah or run-down. You have the sniffles—sneezing and a runny nose that has you reaching for the tissues and keeping them close at hand. And now all you can do is wait: Will they pass, or will they turn out to be something else? Here's what those sniffles could mean. 


Indoor Allergies

woman blowing running nose got flu caught cold sneezing in tissue

Just because cooler weather hits doesn't mean you necessarily have a cold or flu — your sniffles could be the sign of indoor allergies. Dust (and the accompanying dust mites), mold, animal dander and fragrances are more concentrated indoors during the fall and winter, when windows are usually shut and there's less ventilation. In addition to sneezing, coughing and a runny nose or congestion, you might experience an itchy throat or eyes. 

The Rx: The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology recommends vacuuming with a HEPA-filter vacuum (upholstery too!), using mite-proof covers for your mattress and pillows, and adding a filter to your HVAC system. Use a dehumidifier in damp places to prevent mold and keep things clean. Wash your hands after playing with a pet and bathe them regularly.

RE:ATED: 100 Ways Your Home Could Be Making You Sick


Common Cold

Sick young woman eating broth to cure cold in bed at home

The average adult gets two to three colds a year, and that's cold comfort when you're feeling miserable. The common cold can come with sneezing, coughing, fever, congestion, aches and a sore throat. You might sneeze or cough up thick yellow or greenish phlegm. Symptoms can hang around for 7 to 10 days, and a cough can last for weeks. 

The Rx: Unfortunately, the common cold is caused by a virus, so antibiotics aren't helpful. Get plenty of rest, drink fluids, eat well, and use over-the-counter medications to alleviate symptoms or fever.  

RELATED: 30 Things You Shouldn't Do When the Weather Gets Colder


The Flu

Ill man wearing grey sweater, yellow hat and spectacles, blowing nose and sneeze into tissue

Sniffles could also be an early indicator of the flu, whose symptoms tend to mimic those of the flu: Coughing, sneezing, congestion, fever, fatigue, achiness and a sore throat are common. How do you tell them apart? Try this test: If your symptoms are in your head (stuffiness, coughing and sneezing), it is likely a cold. If your symptoms are also in your body (add fatigue and body aches to the mix), you could have the flu. Cold symptoms are generally more mild, the CDC says; and a runny or stuffy nose is more common with a cold. 

The Rx: If you do have the flu, antiviral medication may help shorten its duration, but you should see a healthcare provider within 48 hours of symptom onset. If you have a respiratory condition like asthma or COPD, you should be especially vigilant. You can lower your risk by getting an annual flu shot. The CDC recommends that every adult get one annually; it can reduce your chances of getting the flu by 30 to 60 percent. Those are odds worth taking — in some cases, the flu can have serious complications or be fatal.



Hand turn on aroma oil diffuser on the bedside table at night at home, steam from the air humidifier

If your sniffles are accompanied by symptoms that are primarily in your chest — like a persistent dry or productive cough — you might have bronchitis, also known as a "chest cold." Colds and flu can develop into bronchitis, when airways in the lungs become inflamed and generate more mucus in an attempt to rid the body of invading germs. Bronchitis can last up to three weeks.

The Rx: Bronchitis is usually caused by a virus, the CDC says, and antibiotics are usually not helpful. Follow the self-care tips as you would for a cold. Using a humidifier or vaporizer can help with congestion, and lozenges can help alleviate coughing. 

But call your doctor if you have a fever of 100.4°F or higher; a cough with bloody, black or brown mucus; shortness of breath or trouble breathing; or symptoms that last more than three weeks.



Doctor examining chest x-ray film of patient at hospital

Less commonly, your sniffles could be a sign of pneumonia, in which the air sacs in the lungs fill with fluid, causing a cough and making it difficult to breathe. Pneumonia can be mild or quite serious, and sometimes the flu can lead to pneumonia. Symptoms can include high fever, a phlegmy cough, shaking chills, shortness of breath, wheezing, severe fatigue and chest pain. It can be caused by a viral or bacterial infection.

The Rx: Getting an annual flu shot—and a pneumonia-specific vaccine, if your doctor recommends it—can lower your risk of pneumonia. If you have symptoms of pneumonia, call your healthcare provider. If they determine you have bacterial pneumonia, antibiotics can clear it up. And to live your happiest and healthiest life, don't miss these 50 Unhealthiest Habits on the Planet.

Michael Martin
Michael Martin is a New York City-based writer and editor. Read more about Michael