Know the Difference: Common cold, the Flu, and Pneumonia
‘Tis the season for respiratory illness. Colds, flu, and pneumonia can easily knock you off your game for a few days. In some cases, colds and flu can evolve into pneumonia which, if not identified and properly treated, can stretch those few days off into weeks and even require hospitalization.
While colds, flu, and pneumonia often share some common symptoms, there are several key pneumonia indicators that, if you experience them, should have you reaching for the phone to schedule an appointment with your doctor.
Here’s a look at how symptoms vary between illnesses and how to recognize pneumonia:
A fever can accompany the flu or pneumonia. The American Lung Association (ALA) reports that the fever associated with pneumonia can be either mild or high and can either be persistent or episodic, with a tendency to rise rapidly. It may seem to go away before eventually coming back worse. Be on the lookout for shaking chills, as well.
While colds and flu often come with a cough, a pneumonia-derived cough stands out in that it’s persistent and worsening over time. It may start and remain a dry cough, or it may evolve to produce mucus—often blood tinged—after a few days. Mucus may also green, grey, or yellow in color.
Aches, Pains, and Fatigue
While muscle and body aches, headaches, and fatigue are telltale symptoms of the flu, they can also indicate pneumonia. Chest pain along with labored breathing or a persistent cough is a strong indicator of pneumonia. Some people may even experience sharp chest pains that result from inflammation of the lung or chest lining.
In addition, there are a couple of symptoms that indicate you’re securely in the common cold camp. These include a sore throat and runny nose.
In instances where an illness has evolved to the point where someone is having trouble breathing, they should immediately be taken to the emergency department. This is especially true for:
- Infants and small children
- Seniors over age 65
- People with preexisting lung issues, such as COPD or asthma
- People with other chronic health issues, such as heart disease
The best way to avoid pneumonia entirely is to not get sick at all. Towards that end, be sure you get your flu and COVID vaccines and, and if you’re over the age of 65, ask your doctor about the pneumococcal vaccine.
If you have questions about your symptoms, the American Lung Association has a free Lung Help Line staffed with experts who can help you sort out your symptoms.
The Lung Help Line can be reached by phone (1-800-LUNG-USA ) or email. The hours for the service are Monday-Friday 7 a.m.-9 p.m. CT, weekends 9 a.m.-5 p.m. The TTY for the hearing impaired is 1-800-501-1068.
Dr. Marie George, MD is an Infectious Disease Specialist in Southwestern Vermont Healthcare in Bennington, VT.