Have Nasal Congestion? It's Likely a Cold, Not Anthrax

From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 19, 2001 -- Do you know the symptoms of anthrax infection -- the inhaled type? Some reports say they resemble the common cold, with nasal congestion and runny nose. Others say they are more like the flu.

To clarify the issue, WebMD turned to Sharon Frey, MD, infectious disease specialist who is also associate professor of internal medicine at Saint Louis University in Missouri.

If you have anthrax, she tells WebMD, "You don't get a cold. ... It's more that you're feeling bad, with muscle aches and pains, a low-grade fever, a dry cough that becomes worse over a few days' time. The dry cough and difficulty breathing become overwhelming -- but it's not like a head cold."

Very rarely is there nasal congestion or runny nose, she says.

"It's more like the flu, especially the mild fever and general sense of feeling weak, tired, with aches and pains," Frey says.

Flu season is indeed coming, but don't be confused, Frey tells WebMD. "Even though there's been a lot of anthrax in the news, we haven't seen a lot of cases of anthrax." So unless there's a known exposure to anthrax, just assume you have the flu. You need to be aware of any possible germ and be vigilant about what you're doing, she says.

"Not everybody who has flu symptoms during flu season should go to a doctor's office," she says. "They must be aware if they've been around anything suspicious -- a package, a letter."

But for those who need more reassurance, there is a test that your doctor can do to help figure out if you have the flu. These rapid flu tests can be done in your doctor's office. But keep in mind that the test is not very accurate. The results can come back with no evidence of flu in as many as half of the people who do, in fact, have the flu. Therefore, the CDC recommends that these rapid flu tests should not be done on every person with flu-like symptoms, largely because there are many other viruses out there that cause symptoms like the flu but will not show up on the flu test.

"And people should get their flu vaccine when it becomes available," Frey adds, especially the following people who are considered a top priority:

  • anyone age 65 and older;
  • residents of nursing homes and other chronic care facilities;
  • adults and children with chronic diseases;
  • women in the third trimester of pregnancy.

It is also recommended that adults over age 50, healthcare providers, and people living with someone elderly or chronically ill get the flu vaccine, Frey says.