Is it a Cold or Something Worse?

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Is it a Cold or Something Worse?

Image of a women sneezing into a tissue

Fever, cough, congestion, fatigue - it's that time of year. But how do you know when it's a run-of-the-mill cold or flu versus something more serious? Recognizing the signs and symptoms of serious respiratory illnesses is important to help avoid infection, hospitalization or worse.

A number of illnesses, particularly viral infections, can begin with symptoms that are similar to a cold or the flu but, upon closer inspection or further progression, can prove far more serious than a flu bug. Part of the problem is that many illnesses begin with cold-like symptoms that are fairly nondescript. And, in many cases, one infection can cause differing symptoms in different people.

First, understand that most cold viruses may make you uncomfortable but aren't likely to leave you miserable, especially not for a significant period of time. Cold viruses tend to come on gradually and then linger for several days. While a cold virus can cause a secondary infection that requires antibiotics, the cold itself does not need any medication other than over-the-counter medicines aimed at relieving symptoms.

Meanwhile, the flu will likely hit you fast and strong. Flu symptoms vary but are typically respiratory in nature, including nasal congestion, sore throat, coughing and other breathing-related symptoms. Flu usually brings with it serious fatigue and will likely leave you in bed for days.

If you had the flu vaccine, you may still get infected but your symptoms may be lessened.

In general, the longer an illness lasts, the more serious it may be. This criteria is different for different age groups. Children, for example, tend to have about eight colds or flu viruses each year, lasting a few weeks. Adults, on the other hand, have about three of these infections each year and they might last about one week.

Also, changes in symptoms, such as a second fever, a new rash, or developing symptoms out of the blue are a major indication that something out of the ordinary is going on.

Whether you have a cold or the flu, pneumonia can be a potential complication. After several days, a second fever and perhaps coughing up more phlegm could indicate pneumonia. Pneumonia can lead to difficulty breathing, pain, bouts of coughing and more acute fevers..

Another respiratory complication to watch for is bronchitis, which can be difficult to diagnose, particularly in children. One of the hallmarks of bronchitis is coughing up green or yellow phlegm, following a few days of fever.

Chest soreness and congestion is also associated with bronchitis.

If you are concerned about an illness you or a loved one is experiencing, talk to your doctor. If it is after hours and there is breathing difficulty or other serious concerns, a visit to the emergency room may be in order.

To learn how you can avoid the wait at your local emergency room, visit our website here.

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