3 Ways to Tell Whether You Have Allergies or a Cold

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It happens to everyone sooner or later. You're either too congested to breathe or you have to plug your nose with tissues while sleeping to avoid dripping onto your pillow. It's not serious enough to see a doctor, but you're not exactly sure what you're up against. Is it a cold or just allergies?

The common cold is caused by viruses, while allergy attacks are the body's response to a foreign (albeit usually harmless) substance. Despite their differences, the two ailments can cause remarkably similar symptoms—but luckily there are a few ways to tell them apart, according to several physicians who spoke with U.S. News & World Report.

The first step, naturally, is to check your symptoms. If you have particular symptoms other than sneezing and a stuffy or runny nose, you probably have a cold or an infection. The most common symptoms associated with colds are a sore throat, fever, muscle aches, and yellow mucus. Alternatively, itchy or swollen eyes and fatigue are more commonly associated with allergies. The Mayo Clinic has a helpful chart comparing allergies and cold symptoms.

If you're still uncertain, you may want to consider whether you've had any recent exposure to common allergy triggers, such as pollen, animal hair, dust, mold, and certain foods and medications. If you're prone to allergies, you'd probably start to feel ill immediately after coming into contact with the source.

"Cutting grass, standing at the soccer complex or riding with the windows down [can all expose you to allergens]," Dr. Jeremy Allen, of Birmingham, Alabama, tells U.S. News & World Report.

Allen says you should also consider the time of year. If the weather has changed for the better, you are likely experiencing allergy flare-ups caused by tree or grass pollen. In some parts of the U.S., the spring allergy season begins in February and lasts until early summer, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. A particularly rainy spring can cause more mold growth, triggering allergies well into fall.

When it comes to allergies, prevention is one of the best steps you can take. Mother Nature Network recommends avoiding the outdoors between the hours of 5 a.m. and 10 a.m., when pollen counts are the highest. But if you must go outside, be sure to don sunglasses to protect your eyes, keep your car windows up, and cover your mouth and nose, if possible. A dab of Vaseline inside each nostril will help to stop that pesky pollen in its tracks.

If it's too late for prevention, you may find yourself at the pharmacy wondering whether you should buy an antihistamine or a decongestant. Fortunately, even if you misdiagnose your condition and take the "wrong" over-the-counter drug, it may end up helping you anyway. Antihistamines like Benadryl, Claritin, and Zyrtec will help stop your nose from running (and save you some money on tissues), while nasal sprays and decongestants will tackle stuffiness—regardless of whether it's a cold or allergies that are plaguing you. Other allergy medicines may prove ineffective if you have a cold, but they're not unsafe to take, Dr. Clifford Bassett tells U.S. News & World Report.

Both a cold and allergies can lead to sinus infections—colds turn into infections about 10 percent of the time, according to Bassett—so it's wise to seek treatment if your symptoms persist or worsen after a week.

[h/t U.S. News and World Report]

How Microwaving Food Affects Its Nutritional Value

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iStock/grzymkiewicz

There’s probably no household appliance that sees more use than a microwave. For people who don’t have the time or inclination to prepare dinners from scratch or heat meals in a conventional oven, zapping food has become the ultimate method of time management in the kitchen.

Some people harbor the belief that a price has to be paid for that convenience—specifically, that food loses nutritional value by being subjected to a quick nuking.

The truth? Microwaving doesn’t harm a food’s nutrients. In fact, it may preserve them more than some slow-cook methods do.

The reason is found in how microwaves work. The appliances heat food by blasting it with waves of energy not unlike radio waves. These waves target water and other molecules in the food. Thermal energy quickly builds up, and dishes come out heated in a relatively short period of time. This process avoids two of the factors that can lead to nutrient loss: cooking duration and high temperatures. Typically, the longer and hotter food is cooked, the more its nutritional value dissipates.

The other advantage is that microwaves don’t require water for heating. If you boil broccoli, for example, the hot water allows nutrients to leach out of the vegetable. (While that makes for a good stock, your broccoli may be robbed of some of its healthy benefits.) A quick steam in the microwave leaves broccoli relatively intact.

That’s not to say that microwave cooking is superior to a stovetop. Cooking foods at reasonable temperatures and durations shouldn’t result in significant nutrient loss, though some is inevitable for any manner of cooking. But microwaving isn’t going to erase nutrients via some mysterious microwave alchemy, either.

[h/t CNN]

12 Facts About Fibromyalgia

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iStock.com/spukkato

To people living with fibromyalgia, the symptoms are all too real. Muscle tenderness, full-body pain, and brain fog make it hard to function—and getting a restful night’s sleep isn’t much easier. To the frustration of patients, other aspects of the chronic condition—such as what causes it, how to diagnose it, and how to treat it—are more of a mystery. But after decades of rampant misconceptions, we know more facts about fibromyalgia than ever before.

1. SYMPTOMS FEEL DIFFERENT FOR EVERYONE.

Symptoms of fibromyalgia can vary widely. The defining characteristic of the condition is widespread pain, or pain felt throughout the entire body, but how often this pain occurs and how intensely it’s felt is different in each patient. Some people may feel pain reminiscent of a sunburn, a pins-and-needle sensation, sharp stabbing, or some combination of the above. Beyond pain, the condition can come with fatigue, disrupted sleep, depression and anxiety, and trouble focusing (known as “fibro fog").

2. IT AFFECTS MOSTLY WOMEN.

Most fibromyalgia patients are female, making it more prevalent in women than breast cancer. Not only are women more likely to have fibromyalgia than men, but they report experiencing the symptoms more acutely as well. Researchers still aren’t sure why the condition has a disproportionate impact on women, but they speculate that because the diagnosis is most common during a woman's fertile years, it may have something to do with estrogen levels. Some experts also suspect that the condition may be under-diagnosed in men because it’s often labeled a woman’s problem.

3. IT’S RARE.

Though it has gained visibility in recent years, your chances of experiencing fibromyalgia are still slim. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it affects roughly 4 million adults in the U.S., or 2 percent of the population. Fibromyalgia’s similarity to other mysterious conditions also means it is likely overdiagnosed, so that number may be even lower.

4. MOST PEOPLE GET IT IN MIDDLE AGE.

People who have fibromyalgia tend to develop it well into adulthood. The condition is most common in 30- to 50-year-olds, but people of all ages—including children and seniors—can have it. Fibromyalgia in patients 10 and younger, also called juvenile fibromyalgia, often goes unrecognized.

5. IT’S HARD TO DIAGNOSE.

There’s no one medical test that you can take to confirm you have fibromyalgia. Instead, doctors diagnosis patients who exhibit the condition’s most common symptoms—widespread pain, fatigue, trouble sleeping, and muscle tenderness in certain points on the body—by process of elimination. Polymyalgia rheumatica and hypothyroidism (or an underactive thyroid gland) provoke similar symptoms, and both show up in blood tests. Doctors will usually tests for these conditions and others before diagnosing a person with fibromyalgia.

6. THE NAME IS RELATIVELY NEW.

People have suffered from fibromyalgia for centuries, but it received its official name only a few decades ago. In 1976, the word fibromyalgia was coined to describe the condition, with fibro coming from fibrous tissue, myo from the Greek word for muscle, and algia from the Greek word for pain. The name replaced fibrositis, which was used when doctors incorrectly believed that fibromyalgia was caused by inflammation (which -itis is used to denote).

7. IT MAY BE ASSOCIATED WITH PTSD.

Health experts have long known that post-traumatic stress disorder can manifest in physical symptoms—now they suspect the disorder is sometimes connected to fibromyalgia. According to a study published in the European Journal of Pain in 2017, 49 percent of 154 female fibromyalgia patients had experienced at least one traumatic event in childhood, and 26 percent had been diagnosed with PTSD. Researchers also saw a correlation between trauma and the intensity of the condition, with subjects with PTSD experiencing more and worse fibromyalgia pain than those without it.

8. IT’S NOT “ALL IN YOUR HEAD.”

As is the case with many invisible illnesses, fibromyalgia patients are often told their symptoms are purely psychological. But findings from a 2013 study suggested what many sufferers already knew: Their pain is more than just a product of mental distress or an overactive imagination. The small study, published in the journal Pain Medicine, found extra sensory nerve fibers around certain blood vessel structures in the hands of 18 of 24 female fibromyalgia patients compared to 14 of 23 controls. The study proposed that the nerve endings—once thought to merely regulate blood flow—may also be able to perceive pain, an idea that could help dispel a harmful myth surrounding the condition.

9. IT’S CONNECTED TO ARTHRITIS, CHRONIC FATIGUE SYNDROME, AND IBS.

For many patients, fibromyalgia isn’t the only chronic condition they suffer from. Fibromyalgia has been linked to chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, sleep apnea, migraines, rheumatoid arthritis, and other medical problems. In some cases, as with chronic fatigue syndrome, the two conditions have such similar symptoms that their diagnostic criteria overlaps. Others conditions like irritable bowel syndrome are related to fibromyalgia—not confused with it.

10. IT'S PROBABLY NOT GENETIC—BUT IT CAN CLUSTER IN THE FAMILIES.

If you're closely related to someone with fibromyalgia, you're more likely to have it yourself. Studies have shown that the diagnosis tends to cluster in families. At first this seems to suggest that the condition is genetic, but scientists have yet to identify a specific gene that's directly responsible for fibromyalgia. The more likely explanation for the trend is that members of the same family experience the same environmental stressors that can trigger the symptoms, or they share genes that are indirectly related to the issue.

11. ANTIDEPRESSANTS CAN HELP ...

Since we don't know what causes fibromyalgia, it's hard to treat. But patients are often prescribed antidepressants to ease their symptoms. These medications have been shown to alleviate some of the most debilitating hallmarks of the condition, such as general pain and restless nights. Doctors who support antidepressants as a fibromyalgia treatment are quick to note that that doesn’t make the condition a mental disorder. While these drugs can lift the depressed moods that sometimes come with fibromyalgia, they also function as painkillers.

12. ... AND SO CAN EXERCISE.

One of the most common pieces of advice fibromyalgia patients get from doctors is to exercise. Hitting the gym may seem impossible for people in too much pain to get off the couch, but physical activity—even in small doses—can actually alleviate pain over time. It also works as treatment for other fibromyalgia symptoms like depression and fatigue.

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