Is it a cold, or something else?
It’s easy to diagnose yourself with a cold when you’re feeling unwell. But a cold isn’t always just a cold. It’s important to be able to tell the difference between the common cold and something more serious so you can get the medical attention you need.
If you think you have "just a cold" but are concerned it could be something more, it’s best to err on the safe side and visit your doctor. This is especially true if you have a chronic condition such as asthma, severe allergies, diabetes, kidney disease, HIV, or an autoimmune disease. The same goes for pregnant women and anyone under age six or over 65—the common cold affects these groups of people differently and can be more serious than it is for healthy individuals.
We spoke to doctors to find out what symptoms tip them off that it’s more than a cold. Here, the red flags they look for.
You’ve had symptoms for longer than four days
The common cold tends to clear up on its own in three to four days, says Melisa Lai Becker, MD, site chief of emergency medicine at Cambridge Health Alliance. It starts with a scratchy throat, congestion, and runny nose, and then a cough usually develops. While your cough and post-nasal drip may linger, most symptoms should disappear after four days.
"With a cold, you ultimately feel okay after a couple days of rest, hydration, and Kleenex," she says.
If symptoms last for longer, it’s possible you have something more worrisome, such as the flu or mononucleosis. To be safe, make an appointment with your physician.
Your symptoms seemed to go away… and then they came back
If you thought you recovered from your illness but your symptoms reappeared shortly after, it could be a sign of a rebound illness or "superinfection," says Navya Mysore, MD, a primary care physician with One Medical Group. You may have had a cold initially, but once your immune system was compromised, you developed something more serious—think strep throat, pneumonia, or a sinus infection. Book an appointment with your GP to determine whether or not you need additional treatment, such as antibiotics.
You recently returned from a big trip
Recent international travel is a red flag for doctors because it could mean you have a less-conventional infection they wouldn’t have normally considered, explains Stella Safo, MD, an internist at Mount Sinai Hospital who specializes in infectious diseases. It’s important to see a doctor if you have any symptoms after returning from a trip abroad.
You have a high fever
It is possible to have a fever along with a cold, but they’re not common—especially high ones. If you have a fever at or above 101 degrees Fahrenheit, it could be a sign of strep throat, says Dr. Lai Becker. Most patients with strep will develop a high fever in the first few days of illness, so be wary of sudden spikes in your temperature.
"Strep throat is one thing you really want to distinguish from a cold," she says. "Left untreated, it can cause rheumatic fever and lead to serious heart problems."
You’re having stomach issues
Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea don’t usually accompany colds, so symptoms like these could signal something more serious, such as the flu. It’s important to get medical attention if you’re experiencing these symptoms consistently, as they can cause you to become dehydrated, says Dr. Mysore.
You have severe headaches
Doctors take note of severe headaches—especially if they’re accompanied by a fever and neck stiffness—because this could be a sign of meningitis, says Dr. Mysore. On the other hand, pressure headaches or headaches that feel worse around your eyes and nose may be a sign of sinus infection, she explains. These types of headaches can worsen when you bend forward, since you’re feeling the pressure of your congested sinus passages.
You’re experiencing chest pain or trouble breathing
Even though a cough is a normal symptom of a cold, it shouldn’t be so severe that it causes shortness of breath, wheezing, or chest pain, says Dr. Mysore. These symptoms shouldn’t be ignored, since breathing trouble could be a sign of bronchitis or pneumonia, while chest pain, tightness, and sudden shortness of breath could signal a pulmonary embolism (a blood clot blockage in the lungs).
Your symptoms are in one location
Another red flag it’s more than a cold is a “localization” of symptoms, meaning you feel them in one specific area, explains Dr. Safo. While a cold affects the whole upper respiratory system, other illnesses are characterized by intense symptoms in one place. For example, Dr. Lai Becker points out that strep causes a sore throat so bad it’s difficult to swallow, but typically won’t cause pain throughout the body. Sinus infections can cause headaches and even make your teeth hurt, an ear infection will usually cause pain and congestion in one ear, and mono can cause swollen tonsils.
You have body aches
A regular cold is no walk in the park, but it shouldn’t cause all-over body aches and pains. On the other hand, the flu can make your muscles and body feel achy, and can also be accompanied by fatigue and chills.
"With the flu, you’ll feel like you got hit by a truck," says Dr. Mysore. Just getting out of bed will wear you out, and your muscles will be tender and sore.
There’s a pattern to your symptoms
It can be hard to distinguish allergies from a cold, since they have similar symptoms. But allergies will often follow a pattern, says Dr. Lai Becker. If you notice your symptoms are worse after spending time outside or with a pet, or they tend to come and go with a certain season, you likely have allergies. “I had one patient who thought he was sick, but the real story was that he was allergic to a cat,” Dr. Lai Becker says.
To pinpoint the exact cause, keep track of your symptom history and see if you notice any trends; it could mean you’re allergic to something or have seasonal allergies.