It’s safe to say that cold season is in full effect. The constant hustle and bustle of the holidays (along with a little extra indulgence in our favorite seasonal sweets and cocktails) can definitely knock our defenses down a peg. So if you get a cold, it can sometimes be hard to know when it’s just a cold—and not something worse.
To stay on top of your health, here’s what the experts recommend keeping an eye on.
First things first: What is a cold?
A cold is a low-grade viral infection of the nose and throat. The symptoms of the common cold include mild sore throat, nasal congestion, mild fatigue, and some coughing (due to nasal drip), according to Doctor Julia Scalise, D.N., PhD. And while the duration of any cold depends on the general health and immune strength of the person infected, Scalise says drinking warm fluids, avoiding congestion-causing dairy products, and nasal irrigation usually can help shorten the duration of a cold.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most people should recover from a cold in about seven to 10 days. Lozenges, tea, nasal decongestants, and other over-the-counter medicines are commonly used to treat a cold.
When a “cold” may be the flu
If you are suffering from additional symptoms—like headaches, a fever over 100, mucus discoloration, chest pain, or shortness of breath—Scalise recommends being on alert, as these are usually symptoms associated with the flu, which is a viral infection caused by the influenza virus.
At this point, says Dr. Jatin R. Joshi, BDS, MBS, you should probably consult your doctor. Unlike a cold, which usually clears up in under a week if treated properly, the CDC notes that the flu comes on suddenly, and can last for up to two weeks. If you’ve got the flu, it is recommended that you stay at home and avoid contact with other people, as it’s highly contagious. It’s usually treated with lots of rest and fluids.
When a “cold” may be pneumonia
Pneumonia is also a concern, says Dr. Joshi. Pneumonia is an infection of the lower respiratory tract—mostly in the alveoli (the air sacs in your lungs). Here’s the thing: “Pneumonia often starts with an upper respiratory tract infection like a cold, but then progresses to a cough, difficulty in breathing, fever, and chest pain,” says Dr. Joshi.
There are two kinds of pneumonia—bacterial and viral. Quick science lesson: bacterial infections are caused by bacteria and viral infections are caused by viruses. The core difference? Antibiotics can kill bacteria, but not viruses.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, viral pneumonia is usually accompanied by mild fatigue, congestion, and coughing (without mucus). It’s milder than bacterial pneumonia, which can damage the lungs and often yields colored mucus, chest pain, and a fever. Walking pneumonia is a mild form of pneumonia caused by a bacteria called Mycoplasmapneumoniae. (It still needs treatment—even though it’s mild.) Bacterial pneumonia is typically treated with antibiotics and lots of rest.
It’s important to note that symptoms of pneumonia, cold, and the flu may look alike—so it’s key to see your doctor as soon as serious symptoms arise.
When a cold may be sinusitis
What exactly is a sinus? “Sinuses are cavities in the skull (that are usually filled with air) that produce mucus in order to help clear the nasal passages of pollutants,” says Dr. Joshi. “In sinusitis [a sinus infection], these mucus linings swell up and block the smooth flow of mucus, which then builds in pressure, causing the familiar symptoms of sinus pain and headaches.” With sinusitis, you’ll typically get a thick mucus-y discharge released from the sinuses through the nose.
“Sinus infections can be caused by viruses, bacteria, other pathogens, allergies, [and] even reflux issues,” says Scalise. “So, sinus infections can be a part of a cold virus or caused by something else entirely.”
But how does a sinus infection differ from a cold? According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, sinus infections share many of the same symptoms as a cold—including a headache, runny nose, and facial congestion. However, sinus infections are usually caused by the inflammation of the sinuses, and by bacterial infections.
To treat sinus infections, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics, nasal decongestant sprays, and antihistamines.
When a cold may be bronchitis
Bronchitis may also look a lot like a cold—especially since one of its symptoms is a cough. But, says Dr. Joshi, bronchitis is usually caused from the inflammation of the bronchi, the two tubes that carry air into the lungs. Symptoms normally include lots of coughing, chest pain, and shortness of breath, which can last anywhere from a few days to two weeks. The cough, he notes, can remain for months, if left untreated.
There are two types: acute bronchitis (symptoms usually stick around for about two to three weeks) and chronic bronchitis, which is recurrent and a common form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (or COPD).
“Treatment for bronchitis is very similar to a cold,” he says. “You’ll want to get enough rest, drink plenty of fluids, and use acetaminophen to treat any discomfort you may be experiencing,” he adds.
There are lots of ways to armour up against sickness. You might want to get a flu or pneumonia vaccine, and you’ll always want to wash your hands thoroughly. But the advice your mother—and your doctor—always gave you still rings true: Take your vitamins and supplements, and drink plenty of water.
Studies have shown that vitamins—particularly vitamin C, vitamin E, and vitamin D—can boost immunity, powering up our immune systems during challenging seasons. To get all that you need, a multivitamin will give you the best chance at keeping your body functioning in tip-top shape. Some studies also show that homeopathic remedies like Oscillococcinum can help promote recovery at the first sign of a cold and flu-like symptoms.