Common Illnesses That Could Be Confused For A Cold

When you feel a tickle in your throat or a headache, your body is letting you know it's time to stock up on chicken noodle soup. But is it safe to assume that's enough to get better? Long gone are the days you should assume a feverish forehead is a sign of a cold. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said adults have about two to three colds a year — but in a global pandemic, a cough could also mean a COVID-19 infection. The flu and other viruses that place your immune system on high alert can mimic symptoms similar to the common cold.

Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may need to see your doctor. Understanding the slight differences in your symptoms can help you reach the road to recovery sooner. Here are other illnesses easily mistaken for the common cold.

COVID-19 infection could explain why you feel sick

In a pandemic, runny noses and watery eyes have people on high alert. Depending on your vaccination status, you may experience a wide range of COVID-19 symptoms, from mild to severe. The CDC explained that milder COVID-19 symptoms include a sore throat, congestion or runny nose, and muscle aches. These symptoms appear 2 to 14 days after exposure to the virus.

Despite sharing some symptoms with the common cold, sometimes people may have COVID-19 and are asymptomatic. The major difference between these two is that different viruses cause them. According to the Mayo Clinic, SARS-CoV-2 is the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 infections, while rhinoviruses are the common culprit behind a cold. While both viruses spread through the air, COVID-19 has unique identifiers — which are rare for common colds — such as a loss of taste and smell, diarrhea, and vomiting. In contrast, the Mayo Clinic noted that sneezing is rare for COVID-19 infections while it's more frequent among colds.

Unlike colds that go away after 3 to 10 days, COVID-19 can last for much longer and may be life-threatening. The CDC said anyone with a COVID-19 infection should seek emergency medical care if there are signs of difficulty breathing, pain or pressure in your chest, or you cannot stay awake.

Your runny nose may come from seasonal allergies

Spring is the season of new beginnings. The sun is out for longer, plants are in full bloom, and if you're one of the 50 million Americans with allergies, spring is also the start of hay fever. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America reports allergies as the sixth leading cause of chronic illnesses in the United States.

Like the common cold, seasonal allergies can produce similar symptoms such as a runny nose, itchy eyes, and a scratchy throat. But why these symptoms occur is the key difference between the two. The Mayo Clinic said seasonal allergies come from an immune system that views pollen as harmful intruders to the body. Meanwhile, the common cold comes from a viral infection. Symptoms unique to the common cold — fever, general aches, and pain — can help rule out allergies. Allergies can last for a few weeks, so it's best to avoid exposure to any potential allergens. 

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America recommends washing your nose out daily to remove airborne allergies. Prescription or over-the-counter antihistamines, nasal steroid sprays, and decongestants — limited to three days in a row to avoid nasal swelling — can help with allergy symptoms. For severe allergic reactions, using epinephrine in the first few minutes of an incoming reaction can prevent life-threatening symptoms.

You might have a case of the flu

It's impossible to talk about the common cold without mentioning its evil twin: the flu. On average, 8% of Americans get the seasonal flu every year. Influenza, the virus that causes the flu, is more contagious than a cold and can produce mild to severe symptoms. According to the CDC, the influenza virus is spread through respiratory droplets and while uncommon, some people contract it by touching contaminated surfaces. Symptoms begin to show at least two days after viral exposure, and you are most contagious in the first three to four days. 

Anyone can develop the flu, but people over the age of 65, pregnant women, children younger than 5, and people with chronic conditions such as asthma are at high risk for severe flu complications. If left untreated or without timely medical treatment, the flu can turn into bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, as well as exacerbating preexisting health conditions.

The seasonal flu and the common cold both run rampant in the fall and winter — making it hard to distinguish between the two. To complicate matters, both illnesses produce fever, chills, cough, sore throat, and more. However, the key difference is in the severity of symptoms. The CDC said both have the potential to produce nasal congestion, but you're at a higher chance of having a runny or stuffy nose with a cold. Additionally, colds are far milder than the flu.

Your sore throat may be a sign of strep

If your symptoms center around the throat, you might be looking at a case of strep. The Mayo Clinic explains that strep throat is caused by a bacteria known as Streptococcus pyogenes which are highly transmissible through droplets from coughing, sneezing, or touching your eyes, nose, or mouth after contact with shared surfaces. The bacterial infection creates scratchy throats that make it painful to swallow.

Strep throat is distinguishable from a cold by looking for discolored patches at the back of your throat. "Strep will often cause red and swollen tonsils, sometimes with white splotches, and/or tiny red spots on the roof of the mouth, which you may be able to see by shining a flashlight inside the mouth," Rosemary Schairer, a nurse practitioner in Samaritan Internal Medicine – Corvallis told Samaritan Health Services. "But everyone is different, and a person can have strep without these symptoms." Other symptoms of strep throat that are more common with a cold include fever, swollen lymph nodes, and body aches. While certain cold remedies — drinking warm liquids, taking over-the-counter nasal decongestants, and cough drops — soothe discomforting symptoms, Samaritan Health Services says eating ice cream also helps with throat pain.

Go to the doctor if you suspect pneumonia

Is it a bad cough or is it a case of pneumonia? You can start off with a cold or flu and later develop pneumonia. McNeese State University says that pneumonia symptoms develop faster than cold symptoms and are commonly associated with shortness of breath. "The cough is pretty persistent and unrelenting and often associated with chest pain," Cindy Weston, assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Nursing, told Health. "The fever could be low grade or higher. A lot of times there's no appetite with pneumonia, and there can be some body aches."

Colds are caused by viruses but pneumonia is triggered through bacterial or viral infections. According to the Canadian Lung Association, bacterial pneumonia invades weakened lungs and induces an overactive and damaging immune response known as inflammation. Prolonged lung inflammation makes it hard to breathe. Additionally, McNeese State University says that viral pneumonia causes a rapid escalation of severe symptoms — stabbing pain when breathing in, blueness around the mouth area, and fever — in 12 to 36 hours. You should seek medical care immediately regardless of the type of pneumonia. A doctor can prescribe a full course of antibiotics that needs to be completely taken or else risk a pneumonia relapse.

Chest pain is a clear indicator of bronchitis

If your chest feels sore and your cough is coming up with mucus, you're dealing with a different type of cold. A chest cold, also known as acute bronchitis, is an upper respiratory infection where your airways are inflamed and filled with mucus. The CDC says acute bronchitis tends to occur after a viral infection or upper respiratory infection. Most bronchitis cases go away on their own after 7 to 10 days, says Keck Medicine of USC. Treatment is similar to how you would deal with a cold — bedrest, extra fluids, and using steam or a humidifier to relieve congestion (via the Cleveland Clinic).

Bronchitis shares similar symptoms to the common cold including mild headaches, body aches, sore throat, and coughing with or without mucus. However, Keck Medicine of USC explains that, unlike colds, most congestion in bronchitis cases focuses mainly toward the chest area and away from the nose. The CDC recommends seeing a doctor if you have a fever that passes 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or if you are coughing up blood.

The Omicron variant creates cold-like symptoms

In November 2021, scientists from South Africa identified a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Labeled as Omicron, early research suggests this new variant has more than double the mutations of the Delta variant and is more infectious. Since Omicron's discovery, other countries such as Germany and England have found earlier COVID-19 cases related to Omicron. In the United States, it is on track to overtake Delta as the dominant strain.

Early data from the ongoing Zoe COVID study finds people infected with Omicron show five early symptoms reminiscent of the common cold. These include runny nose, headache, fatigue, sneezing, and sore throat. Half of the people surveyed in the study showed the common three symptoms of fever, cough, or loss of smell or taste. Other reported symptoms include appetite loss and brain fog. Despite an increase in COVID-19 cases, the researchers found rates of hospitalization and deaths dropping. However, it is deadly and one in every 50 cases is predicted to have long-term health consequences. 

Vaccinated people are expected to have mild cold-like symptoms while unvaccinated people may experience more severe illnesses. "For the unvaccinated, you're looking at a winter of severe illness and death for yourselves, your families, and the hospitals you may soon overwhelm," said COVID-19 response coordinator Jeffery Zients in a White House press briefing.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome could explain your mysterious aches and pains

A cold makes you lethargic as your body's working overtime to supply your immune system with the power it needs to fend off harmful viruses and bacteria. But if you're feeling exhausted moving from one room to another, it could be a sign of chronic fatigue syndrome. The CDC says that people with chronic fatigue syndrome feel severe exhaustion with non-strenuous activities which was not a problem before their illness. People may feel chronic fatigue syndrome even when the illness resolves.

Some symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome can suddenly worsen, resulting in a "crash" or "relapse." When this happens, people will abruptly experience trouble with thinking and memory, dizziness, and exhaustion that can keep them bedbound for days or weeks. Additionally, people with this condition have trouble sleeping or staying asleep. 

Chronic fatigue syndrome shares similar aches and pain to the common cold, including headaches, muscle pains, and swollen lymph nodes in the neck and armpits. John Hopkins Medicine says anyone can develop chronic fatigue syndrome but it is most prevalent in middle-aged adults and four times as likely in women.

There is a rare chance for roundworms

Is your fever keeping you up at night or maybe you can't fall asleep no matter what you try? If your sleep eludes you, there is a small chance that you have parasitic insects living in your intestines. According to the Cleveland Clinic, roundworms infect hundreds of millions of people each year. While they are more uncommon in the United States, they do affect 20 to 42 million with the majority being children.

Roundworms tend to enter the body through the mouth and infection happens when your mouth makes contact with poop or soil containing roundworm eggs. While the average person does not go around eating feces, roundworm eggs may slip into food if not properly washed. The eggs end up hatching in the intestines where they produce symptoms ranging from wheezing, coughs, restlessness, vomiting, and severe stomach pain. An obvious way to tell if it's roundworm or a common cold is by looking at your own feces. If you experience diarrhea and also have live worms in your poop, it's roundworms. Pinworms are the most common roundworm infection in the United States. Symptoms of pinworms would include the above as well as itching around the anus or vaginal area.

Sexually transmitted diseases are a cause of concern

When it comes to a cold, you're likely thinking of laying in bed and drinking soup not what's going on in your nether regions. Turns out, a few sniffles here and there could be an STD mimicking a cold. "The common cold, also known as an upper respiratory infection (URI), is caused by the rhinovirus so any STD that is also caused by a virus can mimic cold symptoms," Tami Prince-Clarke, OBGYN, and owner of The Nation's Bedside Doctor, told Elite Daily

HIV seems to be the STD most likely to produce cold-like symptoms such as fever and body aches, noted Prince-Clarke. Although hepatitis B and C are not so far behind — producing symptoms of fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite, and headaches. If your cold symptoms do not resolve in two weeks, it might be a good idea to take an STD test.

There is currently no cure for HIV or hepatitis B. However, the Urology Care Foundation says chronic symptoms can be managed with proper treatment. For HIV, antiviral medications can help prolong your lifespan and improve your quality of life. Hepatitis B is manageable with a combination of interferon medication, antivirals, or a liver transplant. But if left untreated for too long, hepatitis B cells may attack liver cells, resulting in cirrhosis, liver cancer, or death.

A bad UTI case can create cold-like symptoms

Urinary tract infections (UTI) may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you feel an oncoming headache or runny nose. However, they are a possible, albeit rare, cause behind a fever. According to Penn Medicine, UTIs can cause low-grade fever in some people but its hallmark symptom is cloudy urine accompanied by pain or burning during urination. When bacteria that cause the UTI finds their way to the kidneys, you can find severe symptoms similar to a cold. These include a fever over 101 degrees Fahrenheit, chills, night sweats, flushed or reddened skin, and terrible abdominal pain.

The Mayo Clinic says that an untreated UTI that spreads to the kidneys can cause permanent damage. Additionally, a UTI-causing kidney infection increases the risk for a life-threatening condition known as sepsis. If you experience signs of a fever while treating a UTI, consider going to the doctor to rule out kidney infection and to get started on a round of antibiotic treatment.

Respiratory Syncytial virus circulates around the winter and fall months

By adulthood, the common cold is nothing but a nuisance reminding us to destress, drink more water, and sleep. But for infants, cold-like symptoms are more dangerous because they may indicate a respiratory syncytial virus. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the virus is highly contagious, with cases at their highest during the fall and winter. "Most infections occur because somebody with the virus has been touching their nose and then touches somebody else," Giovanni Piedimonte, pulmonologist at Children's Hospital New Orleans told the Cleveland Clinic. "The second person touches their own nose or eyes and then becomes infected." You can also pick up respiratory syncytial virus through surfaces as the virus can survive on surfaces for a few hours.

The Cleveland Clinic says most children by the age of 2 have had respiratory syncytial virus. But about 1 percent — with babies born prematurely or with underlying health conditions being high at risk — will probably need hospitalization to treat the respiratory tract infection. Symptoms that signal a serious infection include a loss or diminished appetite, dry cough, or noisy breathing. If left untreated or if symptoms turn severe, there is an increased risk of developing bronchiolitis or pneumonia.

Sinus infections mimic the common cold

A sinus infection can disguise itself as a mild cold. They may initially develop from a virus that causes the cold, but the Cleveland Clinic's HealthEssentials explains that sinus infections also develop from bacteria and allergies. "A sinus infection occurs when the sinus lining becomes inflamed, preventing the sinuses from draining," Troy Woodard says, rhinologist at the Cleveland Clinic told HealthEssentials. "The trapped mucous becomes a breeding ground for bacteria, which can lead to a sinus infection."

Woodard noted that answering the following four questions can distinguish between a cold or a sinus infection. How long have you been having symptoms? Cold symptoms peak after three to five days and then disappear after a week. If your runny or stuffy nose lasts for over 10 days, it's likely a sinus infection. The second question is: Do you have sinus pressure? Facial pain or pressure are unique signs of sinus infection. The third question is how does your breath smell? Bad breath is associated with sinus infections. The last question: What color is your mucus? If your discharge is clear, it's a cold. But yellow or green is a sinus infection indeed.

When bacteria-causing sinus infections aren't going away on their own, HealthEssentials says that antibiotics can help. However, antibiotics are a double-edged sword, and overuse of them can cause treatment resistance. If sinus infections are caused by viruses, it's better to treat them as you do a cold with enough rest and fluids.

Your child could have a case of whooping cough

A frequent sign of an incoming cold is a cough. While coughs are the last cold symptom to go away, if it doesn't resolve after 10 to 14 days, it may be a sign of another health condition. Sutter Health noted that pertussis, also known as whooping cough, has similar symptoms to the common cold. Known for the "whoop" sound people make when they're gasping for air, the CDC says pertussis can last over 10 weeks.

A 2017 study published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases reported that in 2014 there were approximately 24.1 million cases of pertussis with 160,700 deaths in children under the age of 5. Indeed, the CDC says that while anyone can develop and spread pertussis, children are at high-risk for serious illness. Symptoms of pertussis involve uncontrollable coughing fits that may produce a whooping sound when breathing, vomiting or gagging after coughing, and tiredness after a coughing spasm.

"If your child is having trouble breathing or has a blue color to his or her skin, call 911 immediately," Mark Shalauta, family medicine physician at Scripps Clinic Rancho Bernardo told Scripps Health. Additionally, Sutter Health reported that on rare occasions, violent coughs may stop breathing or cause rib fractures. They advise seeing a doctor immediately if an outline of your child's ribs is seen when breathing.