How to Tell If You Have a Cold or Something Worse

Cold & Flu

Mar 5, 2018


Illness feels nearly inescapable during the wintertime. People are calling in sick to work left and right, and at some point, every door handle starts to look like an open invitation for germs to infect your body.

If you are unfortunate enough to catch a bug, there’s a good chance it’s the common cold, but it could also be a number of other illnesses.

Other Illnesses That Resemble the Common Cold

The cold may be common, but there are plenty of other illnesses that can exhibit the same symptoms and wreak havoc on your immune system, including:

Flu: A respiratory virus that causes tiredness, headaches, body aches, fever, and chills. The 2017 – 2018 flu season is a particularly bad one dominated by the H3N2 strain. Early indicators suggest infection rates will be especially high this flu season.

Sinus Infection: Sinus inflammation and mucus buildup caused by bacteria, viruses or allergies. Symptoms include pressure in the face, headaches, earaches, and toothaches. Sinus infections often start with a cold.

Strep Throat: A bacterial infection targeting the throat. Sufferers may experience a raw or painful throat, difficulty swallowing, discoloration of the throat and tonsils and swollen lymph nodes.

Allergies: An overreactive immune response to an allergen. Symptoms of mild allergies include itchiness, redness, swelling, hives, runny nose, eye watering, and scratchy throat caused by postnasal drip.

Pneumonia: A lung infection caused by bacteria, viruses or more rarely, fungi. The infected person may experience fever, chills, tiredness, persistent wet coughs and shortness of breath. The milder “walking pneumonia” can be easily confused with a cold. Colds can also lead to pneumonia.

Mononucleosis: A virus spread through bodily fluids like saliva. Mono is long-lasting and often causes excessive fatigue, achiness, fevers, swollen lymph nodes, and a sore throat.

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV): A contagious respiratory virus that is nearly indistinguishable from the common cold. It occurs very frequently in young children.

With this wide range of possible illnesses, how can you know whether you have the cold or something more serious? The answer lies in your symptoms.

9 Signs You Don’t Have a Cold

1. You feel severely ill all at once

For most people, the common cold doesn’t cause severe symptoms, although it can certainly pave the way for more intense illnesses to attack your immune system. If you are so exhausted you can’t get out of bed or you feel like your body is undergoing on all-out germ attack, it’s much more likely the flu or another serious illness.

2. You’re feeling feverish

Technically, you can run a fever while fighting off a cold, but it’s not the main symptom like it is for many other illnesses. You are much more likely to notice a sore throat, cough or runny nose before a fever. If you do have a fever, it shouldn’t come on suddenly, run over 101 degrees Fahrenheit or persist for more than a few days. A high or long-lasting fever is a telltale sign you have a different illness.

3. Your symptoms don’t add up

Many people mistakenly attribute their symptoms to a cold because colds are associated with wintertime and a general under-the-weather feeling. However, colds do not typically give people intense headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, itchiness, full-body aches, severe breathing problems, arrhythmia or chest tightness. If you have any of these symptoms, another illness is likely at play.

4. You just can’t kick the sickness

We’ve all had that illness we just can’t get rid of for weeks or even months at a time. While you may have let it go in the past, you really shouldn’t this time around. Colds usually last 7 to 10 days at most, but often disappear quickly. If your symptoms don’t subside in that timeframe, another illness may be at play. The same goes for those instances where you felt like you got better only to get worse and sicker the next week. This is a sign that your body either has a new illness or failed to fight off the old one.

5. You feel pain in one part of your body

A cold affects your neck and head area, causing stuffiness, sore throat, coughing or sneezing. However, it doesn’t centralize in one body part. For example, a cold would not cause a severely raw throat and inability to swallow, intense migraines, pain and pressure in only your ear, jaw or sinuses, or inflammation of the tonsils.

6. You get worse in certain environments

The common cold attacks your entire immune system and doesn’t go away until your body has eliminated the virus. If your symptoms seem to ebb and flow depending on the situation, or if you’ve had these symptoms at the same time every year, the problem is most likely allergies. Indoor allergies to mold, dust or pets can get particularly bad in winter. Try replacing your air filters, vacuuming and removing yourself from your pet and see if your symptoms subside.

7. You have another condition

Some chronic conditions have symptoms that mimic a cold. For example, diabetes can cause lethargy or fatigue. Likewise, complications with chronic conditions can make you feel ill or make you more susceptible to a whole host of wintertime illnesses. A doctor can help you determine whether you have a cold or if a change in the management of your chronic condition is necessary.

8. You’ve traveled recently

It’s definitely possible that you caught a cold while traveling, especially if you spent a lot of time in public places like airports or malls. However, you may also have been exposed to illnesses that are uncommon in the U.S. or had a severe sunburn that gave you cold- and flu-like symptoms. A doctor can help determine your specific ailment.

9. You took antibiotics and felt better

Colds are caused by viruses, not bacteria. Viruses must run their course before you get better, although symptoms can be eased with pain relievers and decongestants. If you took antibiotics and have seen a marked improvement, you likely had some sort of bacterial infection, like strep throat.

Get Your Cold-Like Symptoms Diagnosed at Complete Care

When it comes to your health, it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you suspect your “cold” is actually a more serious illness, the medical providers at Complete Care can help. Our emergency rooms, urgent cares, and hospitals provide quick, quality healthcare services no matter the time of day or night.

Visit one of our locations today and start feeling better in no time.