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Is it a Cold or Something Else? Know the Signs and Symptoms of the Common Cold

Is it a Cold or Something Else? Know the Signs and Symptoms of the Common Cold

How do you know if you have a simple cold? Knowing the difference between a cold, an allergy, or the flu – or another illness – can help determine appropriate care and treatment. It is important to know the signs and symptoms of the common cold to see if rest and hydration are enough, or whether it’s time to see a doctor.

What is a cold?

A cold is a common and minor infection of the nose and throat – the upper respiratory tract – that is caused by a virus. More than 200 types of viruses can lead to the common cold. The most common is the rhinovirus, which is thought to be responsible for at least 40 percent of colds. Other viruses that can cause colds include coronavirus, respiratory syncytial virus, influenza, and parainfluenza.

In most cases, the common cold just needs to run their course. It cannot be treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics treat bacterial infections. Since the common cold is a viral infection, antibiotics will not work. The symptoms can be treated, but not the infection itself.

What causes colds?

Viruses can spread from one person to another, or from surface to person. One can catch a cold from someone who has a cold, through droplets from coughing or sneezing. A cold can also be transferred when someone touches a surface with the virus, such as door knob, remote control, a cup, or utensil, and touches one’s nose, mouth, or eyes.

Common Cold and COVID 19: How Can You Tell the Difference?

Colds may be seasonal, but anyone can get a cold all year round. On average, adults catch colds around two to four times a year. Children get it more often, averaging six to 10 colds annually.

Rates are particularly high among school-age children, or when they have constant interactions with other kids. Because children contract the virus so often, it is important to identify the signs and symptoms of the common cold to ease anxiety and apply the best care and treatment for the child.

Signs and Symptoms of the Common Cold

Cold symptoms rarely appear suddenly and usually appear around one to two days after infection. Here are some of different signs and symptoms of the common cold:

Nasal symptoms:

  • congestion
  • sinus pressure
  • runny nose
  • stuffy nose
  • loss of smell or taste
  • sneezing
  • watery nasal secretions
  • postnasal drip or mucus draining from the nose into the throat

Head symptoms:

  • watery eyes
  • pink eye
  • headache
  • scratchy or sore throat
  • hoarse voice
  • cough
  • swollen lymph nodes

Whole body symptoms include:

  • fatigue or general tiredness
  • poor appetite
  • chills
  • body aches
  • low-grade fever
  • chest discomfort
  • difficulty breathing deeply

Most people with colds will have varying degrees of these symptoms. Symptoms generally go away in about a week to 10 days. Generally, some symptoms, such as coughs, may take a while longer to resolve.

Some people may also have symptoms for more or less time, depending on their overall health. Smokers and people with asthma, for instance, experience the signs and symptoms of the common cold for a longer time compared to others.

How do you know when it is not a cold?

The signs and symptoms of the common cold share similarities with other conditions, such as the flu or allergies. Other health complications may occur due to the presence of the common cold.

signs and symptoms of the common cold

What’s the difference between a cold and the flu?

The cold and the flu are both respiratory illnesses and can manifest similar symptoms. However, the two conditions are caused by different viruses and a better understanding of the signs and symptoms of the common cold and the flu will help differentiate the two.

The shared symptoms of the common cold and the flu are:

  • a runny or stuffy nose
  • sneezing
  • sore throat
  • body aches
  • general fatigue

When is the illness the flu rather than just the common cold? Generally, flu symptoms are more severe and felt sooner than cold symptoms. People with the flu also feel weak and tired for up to two to three weeks. Symptoms of the flu often include a headache and a fever that comes and goes, accompanied by periods of chills and cold sweats.

Colds or allergy?

One way of determining if the signs and symptoms of the common cold point to something else is to determine if there is a pattern to the condition.

If the colds suddenly develop and happen at the same time every year, these may actually be seasonal allergies. Colds and seasonal allergies share some of the same symptoms, but are very different diseases.

While the common cold is caused by a virus, seasonal allergies are immune system responses triggered by exposure to allergens, such as seasonal tree or grass pollens, or changes in the weather.

Treatment of seasonal allergies may include over-the-counter or prescription antihistamines, nasal steroid sprays and decongestants, and avoidance of exposure to allergy triggers. Seasonal allergies may last several weeks. Symptoms of seasonal allergies include cough, slight feeling of fatigue or weakness, itchy eyes, sneezing, and runny and stuffy nose.

When to see your doctor

When your condition persists after a week, set an appointment with your doctor. More severe symptoms may also need medical attention, such as a fever greater than 101.3ᴼF (38.5ᴼC), fever lasting five days or more or returning after a fever-free period, shortness of breath, wheezing, and severe sore throat, headache, or sinus pain.

Tests will determine whether you have the signs and symptoms of the common cold, the flu, or something else entirely. Sometimes, colds lead to a bacterial infection in the lungs, sinuses, or ears. In such cases, antibiotics may be prescribed, which work against bacteria but not against viruses. It is important to see a doctor to rule out serious illnesses.

Complications of the common cold

Being infected with the common cold can lead to the following complications.

Acute Bronchitis

This condition develops when the bronchi (small tubes) in the lungs become inflamed due to either a bacterial or viral infection. If the infection is bacterial, antibiotics may be prescribed. If viral, other medications may be given to treat the symptoms until the infection goes away, since antibiotics will not affect the virus.

Symptoms of acute bronchitis include wheezing, shortness of breath, coughing, and sputum. Doctors may examine a sputum sample to determine the levels of bacteria.


Lungs are similarly inflamed in this condition, but due to the alveoli (tiny air sacs) filling with fluid. Bacteria or viruses can cause pneumonia. However, the common cold virus does not cause pneumonia. If pneumonia occurs as a complication of a cold, it is most likely to be bacterial, and antibiotics may be prescribed. Symptoms include chest pain, cough, fever, and breathing difficulties.

Acute Bacterial Sinusitis

This condition occurs when bacteria infect the sinuses. Symptoms can be managed with nasal and oral decongestants, although antibiotics are required to treat the condition and to prevent further infection. Without antibiotics, the illness can lead to other conditions, such as bacterial meningitis in rare cases. Symptoms include headache, aching sinuses, and nasal discharge.


This inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord is caused by a bacterial or viral infection. Symptoms include a fever over 102 ᴼF (38.8ᴼC), sudden and severe pain in the face or head, double or problematic vision, confusion or problems thinking clearly, stiff neck, and shortness of breath (in cases of severe meningitis).

Ear infection

Colds and sinus infections can trap fluid in the ear behind the eardrum. When this happens, bacteria or viruses can grow and cause an ear infection. Symptoms that can signal an ear infection can include fullness or pressure in one or both ears, pain in one or both of them, fluid that drains from the ear, and muffled hearing.

Other complications of the common cold include bronchiolitis, croup, and strep throat.

Key Takeaways

An awareness of the signs and symptoms of the common cold can help determine whether you just need to ride out the virus, or go see your doctor. More severe or a deviation from common cold symptoms can indicate the flu, allergies, other more serious complications from having the common cold.

Learn more about the common cold, here.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2019. Cold Versus Flu. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/coldflu.htm Accessed December 15, 2020

Mayo Clinic. 2020. Common Cold. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/common-cold/symptoms-causes/syc-20351605

Accessed December 15, 2020

Mayo Clinic. 2020. Symptom check: Is it a cold or allergy? https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/common-cold/expert-answers/common-cold/faq-20057857

Accessed December 15, 2020

Common Cold


Accessed December 15, 2020

Common Cold


Accessed December 15, 2020

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Written by Sahlee Barrer Updated Dec 15, 2020
Medically reviewed by January Velasco, M.D.