Sore throat. Headache. Runny nose. Congestion. It’s easy to chalk common winter symptoms up to the common cold. However, those symptoms can also indicate something much more serious, like influenza, pneumonia or bronchitis. Furthermore, many more serious viruses and illnesses that affect the respiratory tract can start as the cold – but spiral down a worse path when the cold isn’t taken care of properly. So how can you tell if it’s just a cold or whether you should head to the doctor?
Influenza – or the flu – is a respiratory virus that the Center for Disease Control states is contracted by up to 20% of the United States population each year. Part of what makes the flu so dangerous is it’s unpredictability and how contagious it is. It generally comes on suddenly and can bring with it fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffed up nose, body aches, fatigue, and even bowel irregularity. There are multiple strains of the Influenza virus, so while getting the flu vaccine helps, it does not make you totally immune to contracting it. While recovery period tends to be a few days to a couple weeks, not taking care of it can lead to even more serious conditions.
Bronchitis is most often caused by the cold or the flu. If you notice that your congestion and sinus symptoms lead more into a cough that produces mucus that hasn’t gone away after a couple weeks, chances are, it’s Bronchitis. You also will probably run a fever, experience a tight, burning feeling in your chest and wheezing.
Whether you’ve had it or not, the common feeling around pneumonia is one of seriousness. 5-10 million people in the United States get pneumonia each year – and one million of those require hospitalization – making it the third most frequent cause of hospitalization. Pneumonia can be caused by both bacterial infections of the respiratory tract and viruses that attack the body once another infection has weakened the immune system. Pneumonia also shares many symptoms with the flu and the cold – runny nose, sore throat, cough – but it also brings the feeling of a tight or heavy chest, a fever, brown or yellow phlegm, wheezing or a crackling sound when breathing.
Getting enough rest and staying hydrated is key to helping both prevent and heal illness, especially when they are serious. It is also important to eat a balanced diet. Washing your hands properly before eating and after touching anything that has been handled by someone else’s hands is another way to rid yourself of germs. You know your body and must listen to it – if the symptoms you are experiencing feel worse, different or simply won’t go away, it’s time to make an appointment with the doctor. All illness is easier and faster to treat when it’s caught early.