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

If the mucus is dark green or dark yellow, the infection has worsened. You may need to visit the doctor.

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Jessica Patrick
, WRAL senior multiplatform producer

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

Kathryn Herb, a family nurse practitioner at American Family Care with locations in Cary, Raleigh, Apex, Fuquay-Varina and Wendell, answered our questions, explaining 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 a lot of the time that change in coloration can simply be from your body healing itself," Herb said.

  • If you feel ill but your nasal mucus is clear, there is a good chance you are suffering from allergies, which can make you feel really sick. Allergies can be treated with antihistamines like 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 isn't a sign you need to head to the doctor.
  • If the mucus is dark green or dark yellow, the infection has likely worsened. You may need to visit the doctor.

Keep in mind that, which the snot test can be used as an indicator, it's not 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's going to give a clear indication of whether or not this is more allergy-related nasal congestion versus say a cold, virus or a bacterial sinusitis," she said.

2. When to go to the doctor

Very often, it's okay to treat your symptoms with over-the-counter medicine and wait out a cold. According to Herb, it's time to schedule an appointment with your physician 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 rattling in the chest.

"An upper respiratory infection caused by a virus will typically dissipate around day five to day seven," Herb said. "So if it's been over a week and you're feeling worse and not better, then I would encourage you to come get checked out."

3. Listen to your cough

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

A health provider can diagnose lower respiratory infections like bronchitis or pneumonia. If your cough comes with a rattle, that could be bronchitis or, possibly, COVID-19. Take a self-test and call your doctor.

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

4. Have a fever? Here's when to treat it

A fever is your body's way of fighting infection, and waiting out a low grade fever can help your body recover.

"Fever in and of itself is quite protective," Herb said. "It's our body's defense mechanism to literally burn off whatever pathogen is going on, whether that be a virus or bacteria or even a fungal process."

Fevers at or above 102 degrees will cause discomfort and may require medicine, 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're feeling good and you're eating and you're happy, I would argue to not treat that as long as you're comfortable," Herb said. "If you had a low grade fever and you were feeling really uncomfortable, I would go ahead and recommend that you take some Tylenol and or ibuprofen to help you feel better."

Allergies don't cause fevers, but they can trigger sinus infections, which can lead to fevers.

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 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 sinus congestion and stuffy nose. Decongestants can elevate blood pressure, so people with a history of hypertension should speak with their doctor first.

Expectorants (Mucinex): These are used to make coughs more productive, clearing 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 simpler, Herb said, but use caution -- read what is in each oral medication you take so you don't accidentally take too high of a dosage.


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