Is It a Cold… Or Something More Serious?


Dr. Carolyn McClain, Medical Director of The Urgency Room  

Coughing, sneezing, an endless runny nose, a sore throat and that just plain miserable feeling….

I know you’ve been there! Most of us have. It’s a “case of the yuckies” strong enough to ruin your day and in many cases, your week! You may be dealing with  an upper respiratory infection.

What is an upper respiratory infection?

Upper respiratory infections are one of the most frequent causes of doctor visits with varying symptoms ranging from runny nose, sore throat, cough, to breathing difficulty, and lethargy. In the United States, upper respiratory infections are the most common illness leading to missing school or work. These infections are the most common in the fall and winter months from September to March. That’s the time when kids are in close quarters during the school year and also when the low humidity of winter creates the perfect environment for upper respiratory infections to thrive and spread.

The symptoms of upper respiratory infection usually last between 3-14 days; if symptoms last longer than 14 days, an alternative diagnosis can be considered such as, sinusitis, allergy, pneumonia, or bronchitis.

So how do you know if your upper respiratory infection or cold is becoming more serious? Could it be  bronchitis, pneumonia or the flu? Here are some facts to help you decipher.

  • It’s a fact that more than 3 million people develop pneumonia in the United States every year AND almost half are hospitalized because of it. Some have even suffered respiratory failure, the main cause of death in pneumonia patients.
  • Bronchitis, which is an inflammation of the main passageways to the lungs, can also cause complications. If left untreated, bronchitis can develop into pneumonia.
  • Symptoms of the flu can also mimic those of pneumonia and bronchitis. Some flu patients can recover at home with adequate rest, fluids, etc. But, there are cases where flu complications require a trip to the ER.

  Here is a great checklist to help you decide if you’re suffering from something more serious than a bad cold:

  • High Fever (Over 103-degrees) or fever comes AFTER you have had the cold for a few days.
  • Chest pain associated with the cold that worsens when you cough or breathe deeply
  • Extreme fatigue, dizziness, short of breath  
  • Coughing up mucous or even blood
  • Decreased appetite

If you are feeling sick and dealing with any of the above symptoms, it’s time to get checked out.