27 Subtle Signs Your "Cold" Means Something Else
It's time to put down the Mucinex and call a doctor.
Your eyes are watery, your throat is sore, and your nose is running like a faucet. Yes, you've found yourself in the clutches of yet another cold, with little respite in sight. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average adult gets between two and three colds a year, the bulk of which last seven to 10 days. But what happens when those pesky cold symptoms don't subside in a week or two—or are followed by unfamiliar ones that seem more insidious? With the help of doctors, we've rounded up the cold symptoms that could mean a more serious illness is afoot.
You have chills that cause you to shake.
Though the chills often go hand-in-hand with illnesses like the flu, if you find yourself shaking from them, you should book an appointment with your doctor. Also known as rigors, these are a sign of serious illness, cautions pediatrician Heather Finlay-Morreale, MD, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. "This could be from the cold turning into pneumonia or sepsis," she says.
Similarly, if you find that your cold is accompanied by a fever that's causing you to shiver, it's time to see a doctor. "Most people with colds don't have fevers," says David Cutler, MD, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. So, a fever likely indicates that your "cold" could actually be something worse.
You have trouble walking up stairs.
While a bad cold that's affecting your lungs may make it hard to breathe, if you're suddenly having trouble walking up just a few steps, you should definitely consult a medical professional.
According to Finlay-Morreale, difficulty walking up stairs "could be a sign of worsening lung or heart function due to a respiratory illness," which demands immediate attention.
It hurts when you breathe.
One of the most clear-cut signs that it's more than just a cold? Rather than getting better over the course of a week or two, the pain in your lungs has intensified, often leading to a diagnosis of pneumonia. And while many people do recover from pneumonia, that doesn't mean you should take these symptoms lightly. "This is a serious and potentially life-threatening illness and needs prompt treatment," says Kristine Arthur, MD, an internist at MemorialCare Medical Center Group in Irvine, California.
You have a persistent dry cough.
While persistent coughs can be the result of everything from allergies to asthma, if you have a dry cough that won't go away—but no other symptoms—there may be an unlikely explanation: your medication.
"A chronic dry cough is a common side effect of ace inhibitors, which are a type of blood pressure medication," explains Arthur. If the cough is bothersome to you, it might be worth talking to your doctor to see if another medication would be a better fit.
Or your cough isn't going away with treatment.
If you've had cold symptoms for weeks or even months that haven't improved after treatment by a doctor, you might want to get a second opinion. Arthur says that persistent cold symptoms that don't resolve after medical treatment could be a sign of cancer, especially among smokers or those who have been exposed to asbestos.
And while there may be no other symptoms at first, Arthur notes that some lung cancer and mesothelioma patients also "have generalized weakness, decreased appetite, shortness of breath, and weight loss."
Your neck aches.
The cough accompanying your cold will likely cause throat pain, but if your whole neck hurts, it's important you see a doctor. Meningitis, an inflammation of the meninges—the membranes that cover the spinal cord and brain—occasionally presents with cold-like symptoms, including cough and lethargy, but can become fatal if not treated right away.
You can't keep fluids down.
Just sipping a glass of water can feel like torture if you're dealing with a bad cold. However, if you find yourself struggling to keep those fluids down once you've consumed them—or if you've stopped urinating—it's time to high-tail it to the doctor, as Finlay-Morreale says these can be signs of serious dehydration.
There's blood in your mucus.
While throat irritation from coughing can cause anyone to see a little blood in their tissue from time to time, if you're coughing up larger amounts of fresh blood, you should get checked for tuberculosis.
"This infection is very contagious and it is extremely important to be checked right away," says Arthur, who notes that those with weakened immune systems, anyone who's recently traveled outside of the country, or those who have been around other TB patients are particularly at risk. And during your appointment with your doctor, make sure you mention those factors so they can provide you with a mask to help prevent transmission to others.
Or your mucus is a strange color.
What your mucus should look like with a cold: yellow, maybe a little green, and low to moderate in volume. However, if you find yourself dealing with pain when you breathe and are coughing up brown or green material, that may be a sign of pneumonia, according to Arthur.
Your nasal discharge is accompanied by an unpleasant smell.
Additionally, if your nasal discharge has a distinct odor to it, that's not something you want to ignore. According to Joshua Scott, MD, a primary care sports medicine physician at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, foul-smelling nasal discharge is often a sign that there's a foreign body up there. "The only treatment is removal of the foreign body by a health care professional," says Scott.
There's pressure in your throat.
A cough accompanied by pressure or fullness in your throat definitely merits attention from a doctor. This is frequently a sign of an enlarged thyroid, which can be due to a thyroid disorder like hypothyroidism and Hashimoto's thyroiditis. It may also be a symptom of even more pressing medical issues, like esophageal cancer, so time is of the essence if you notice a fullness in your throat that wasn't there before.
Your throat burns.
A little pain in your throat from coughing when you have a cold is normal. Burning? Not so much. If you have a cough, a bad taste in your mouth, and your throat feels like it's on fire, that could be a sign that you're dealing with acid reflux.
"Typically symptoms are worse after heavy or spicy meals or if you take anti-inflammatory pain medication like ibuprofen regularly," says Arthur, who notes that lying down can make the symptoms worse. And while she recommends initially attempting to treat the problem at home with over-the-counter antacid medications before heading to the doctor, if left untreated, the condition can increase your risk of infection, ulcers, and even esophageal cancer.
You've developed a rash.
That rash you suddenly developed along with your cold might be a sign of something more serious. Conditions like scarlet fever—a bacterial illness that often accompanies strep throat—can cause a rash on the torso, face, neck, and extremities, and needs to be treated by a doctor.
You're sick to your stomach.
Though some people associate digestive troubles with the common cold, Cutler notes that diarrhea and stomach pain are not typical signs of the frequent illness. Instead, he says, "these are all signs of more serious illnesses." So if you have these systems, it merits a doctor's visit.
Noisy, labored breathing is a sure sign your cold is something more serious. "If you have a cough accompanied by wheezing that does not go away, you may have asthma or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)," says Arthur.
While asthma typically shows up earlier in a person's life, "COPD may present later in people who smoked at some point," she explains. So, if you're wheezing, head to your doctor stat since lung testing is required for a COPD diagnosis.
Your hearing has changed.
A common cold and sudden deafness shouldn't go hand-in-hand. According to Cutler, changes in your hearing are not a typical sign of a cold. However, hearing changes can often accompany sinus infections, which need to be treated by a doctor.
You have pressure at the base of your neck.
A little cough and some pressure in your throat may seem like little more than a common cold rearing its ugly head, but this combo should definitely be checked out by a doctor. In fact, many thyroid problems have symptoms that mimic those of a cold, but that pressure in your neck is a good indicator there's more going on.
You have back pain.
Everything may hurt when you have the flu, but that shouldn't be the case if you have a common cold. That's particularly true in the case of symptoms like back pain. If you're experiencing back pain in addition to that cough, it could be a sign of more serious ailments like pneumonia, a broken rib, or even lung cancer.
When in doubt, get checked out, says Cutler. "What everyone is looking for is that algorithm that tells you if this is a cold or more serious. That's why it's so important to talk to your doctor, who can refer you to a specialist if it's something more rare or exotic."
Your bones hurt.
While most colds are accompanied by a cough, if you also have bone pain, it's time to see a doctor as soon as possible. Though it could be a sign of the flu or an infection, a cough accompanied by bone pain can sometimes be an indicator of lung cancer, too.
Your teeth hurt.
If those pearly whites are feeling worse for wear, that's a good sign you're dealing with more than just a typical cold. Tooth pain that accompanies a cough is often a sign of infection, so if you've got tooth or jaw pain you just can't shake, it's time to meet with your GP.
Your cough is extra loud.
Though coughs can have a variety of sounds that accompany them, if your cough is particularly loud, that could be a sign something more serious is going on. If your cough is extremely noisy or sounds more like a bark, it could be a sign you're dealing with pertussis—better known as whooping cough.
You have pressure or pain in your chest.
If your supposed cold is accompanied by pressure in your chest, it's important to talk to a doctor as soon as possible. In addition to heart conditions, chest pressure can be a sign of a tumor in your lungs or esophagus, conditions that are potentially deadly if not treated in a timely manner.
Additionally, if you do notice a painful sensation in your chest, it's time to make an appointment to be seen. Chest pain can be a sign of a potentially-deadly heart condition, and can also signify the presence of cancers in the upper respiratory tract.
Your legs hurt
A cough and leg pain combined could be a sign that something far more serious than your standard cold is at play. Pulmonary embolisms, or blood clots that travel to the lungs, can cause a combination of coughing and leg pain, the latter because the condition often stems from deep vein thrombosis, a blood clot in the legs sometimes associated with travel or other prolonged periods of inactivity.
Your extremities are freezing.
Having a cold doesn't necessarily make you cold. If your hands and feet are particularly chilly beginning with the onset of a cold—particularly if they start turning blue or losing feeling—it's important to check in with a doctor as soon as possible. While cold extremities aren't typical cold symptoms, they can be a sign of a serious infection, potentially leading to life-threatening sepsis if left untreated.
You only have pain in one area.
Unpleasant though they might be, colds generally cause pain in more than one area at once, meaning your eyes, nose, and throat are all typically affected to some degree or another. However, if your pain is localized to a single area, it could be the sign of something more serious, like strep or scarlet fever.
You've been sick for more than a week.
Though some colds can last for up to two weeks (or more!), the vast majority will be knocked out in a seven-day period. If that's not the case for you, it's time to call a doctor. "If you've been sick for more than a week, it's probably not a cold," says Cutler. "The duration, the severity, and the specific symptoms are all signs that it's not a cold going on.
Or your symptoms returned after going away.
The only good thing about the common cold? It usually goes away and stays away. But if you find your cold symptoms returning a week or two later, it could be a sign that your weakened immune system made you more susceptible to infection. "Immune system problems can… lead to frequent or prolonged infections," explains Scott. So don't wait for round two of your cold to go away on its own—talk to a doctor ASAP. And if you feel you're not getting the treatment you need, check out these 20 Signs You Need a New Doctor ASAP.
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