We can all relate to the feeling of dread after experiencing the first sniffle, sneeze, or throat tickle of the season. It forces us to ask the unavoidable question:
“Am I getting sick?”
If the symptoms linger, there’s no getting around it—you’ve come down with something. The next question is, what? Recognizing when your illness is mild, like a cold
, or when it’s more serious, like the flu
or even pneumonia
, is crucial. While a cold might mean some extra rest and a day or two off work, the flu can require medical attention, and pneumonia is a more serious problem.
The good news is there are distinct differences between the symptoms of a cold, the flu, and pneumonia. While these indicators may not be fool-proof, they can serve as a good starting point for a conversation with your doctor:
1. Pinpoint where your symptoms are
The location of your worst symptoms can be a tell-tale sign of what ails you. Here’s a basic breakdown:
· In your head (eyes, nose, or throat)—you likely have a cold.
If your symptoms stop at a runny nose, and a sore throat, there’s a good chance you are suffering from the common cold. These symptoms are often confused with seasonal allergies, but here’s another good rule of thumb—if you have a sore throat, it’s more likely a cold than allergies.
· In your whole body—you likely have the flu.
Aches throughout your body, feeling really run down, and a fever
indicate you have something more serious than a cold – you probably have the flu.
· In your chest—you may have pneumonia.
There’s a lot of overlap with symptoms of pneumonia and symptoms of cold and flu. Fever and chills can also be a sign of pneumonia, but sharp pain in your chest that occurs with taking a breath, along with issues like difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
, are potential indicators of pneumonia. Pay close attention to chest pain that occurs when taking a breath and is worse on one side of your body than the other.
2. Check the calendar
Colds are most common in the transitions into fall and spring, while flu season typically picks up a little bit later (often in October running through February and sometimes as late as May). While there is considerable overlap, far fewer people suffer from the flu outside of this season.
Because pneumonia is a common complication stemming from the flu and can result from colds as well, it tends to share seasonality with these illnesses.
3. Look at your tissue
It might not be the most pleasant thing, but opening that used tissue back up can provide some clues about what ails you. If you have a cold or the flu, your mucus will start off clear and could potentially change colors to white, yellowish or green as your body fights the infection.
But large amounts of yellow mucus, especially right after you first start experiencing symptoms, could be a sign of bacterial infection. Lots of phlegm in the chest, resulting in what doctors call a “productive cough,” could also be an indicator of pneumonia.
I think I have a cold, the flu, or pneumonia—what should I do next?
If you think you have the common cold, over-the-counter medicines may curb your symptoms, but there’s little you can do to speed up your recovery time. Your best bet is to stay hydrated and get some rest. Taking some time off work and washing your hands frequently can reduce spread of the virus.
If you think you might have the flu, get to the doctor or urgent care center. Unlike a cold, there are drugs to treat the flu virus, and these drugs are most effective within the first 48 hours of the infection. Getting to a doctor is especially important for people with chronic conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
(COPD), people who have weakened immune systems, and women who are pregnant. Antibiotics are not effective against the common cold or the flu, and could actually make things worse.
People who suspect they may have pneumonia, particularly those who are short of breath, should visit an urgent care or emergency department. Antibiotics are often used as treatment for pneumonia.
When you first start experiencing symptoms, differentiating between a cold, the flu, and pneumonia isn’t always easy or straightforward. Fortunately, a health care professional can usually give you a better idea of what’s going on. Pay close attention to your symptoms and don’t wait to see a medical professional if you think it may be something beyond the sniffles.