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

It can be hard to decipher when you or your kids are suffering from allergies or something more serious. When should you go to the doctor? When should you take medicines and what should you take?

Kathryn Herb, a family nurse at American family care with locations in Cary, Raleigh, Apex, Fuquay-Varina and Wendell, answered our questions, explained the color of nasal mucus, the way your cough sounds and other factors 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 change in color may just be because your body is healing itself,” Herb said.

  • If you feel sick but your nasal mucus is clear, chances are you have allergies, which can make you feel very sick. Allergies can be treated with antihistamines such as Zyrtec or Claritin and nasal sprays containing 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 should see a doctor.
  • If the mucus is dark green or dark yellow, the infection has probably gotten worse. It may be necessary to see a doctor.

Please note that using the snot test 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 the early morning color.

“That will give a clear indication of whether this is more allergy-related nasal congestion than, say, a cold, a virus or a bacterial sinus infection,” she said.

2. When to go to the doctor

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

  • Your symptoms persist or get worse after 5 to 7 days.
  • You experience facial or ear pain. This could indicate an infection that may require an antibiotic.
  • You experience lower respiratory symptoms such as wheezing, shortness of breath, or chest rattling.

“An upper respiratory infection caused by a virus usually clears up around day five to day seven,” Herb said. “So if it’s been more than a week and you’re feeling worse and not better, I’d encourage you to get checked.”

3. Listen to your cough

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

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

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

4. Fever? Here’s when to treat it

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

“Fever by itself is quite protective,” Herb said. “It’s our body’s defense mechanism to literally burn off any pathogen, be it a virus or a bacteria or even a fungal process.”

A 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 102 degrees, but you feel good and you’re eating and you’re happy, I’d advocate not treating that as long as you’re comfortable,” Herb said. “If you had a low-grade fever and were really uncomfortable, I would suggest taking some Tylenol and/or ibuprofen to feel better.”

Allergies don’t cause a fever, but they can cause sinusitis, which can lead to a fever.

Medication Guide

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

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

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

Expectorants (Mucinex): These are used to make coughing more productive, clear mucus 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.

Combo pills (DayQuil and NyQuil) can make the medication process easier, Herb said, but be careful — read what’s in each oral medication you take so you don’t accidentally take too high a dosage.

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