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12 Signs Your Cold May be Pneumonia

SneezeIf congestion and sneezing has you up to your ears in crinkled tissue and the nose you once deemed cute as a button is now looking more like Bozo the Clown’s, you may be well on your way to a run-in with the common cold. But how can you be sure that your mild cold symptoms aren’t indicative of something more dangerous like pneumonia? Let’s start by first reviewing the symptoms of the common cold.

Once you’re exposed to the cold virus, symptoms usually develop within 4 days. Initially, you may have a sore throat that’s quickly followed by a runny nose, sneezing and a general feeling of malaise or tiredness. You may develop a mild cough that produces watery mucus, which may eventually change color and become thicker. You probably won’t notice a fever; if you do, it may not be a cold, but the flu virus instead.

After about three days your symptoms should start to subside, although you may feel congested for up to 10 days. There is no cure for the common cold, but rest, drinking plenty of fluids and over-the-counter pain relievers such as Tylenol or Motrin may be recommended by your physician to help you be more comfortable as you weather the storm.1


Although coming down with a cold is usually no cause for alarm, because it weakens the immune system, it increases your risk for pneumonia. Additionally, infants, the elderly and people who have ongoing health conditions like COPD are more at risk for developing pneumonia.

Pneumonia can be caused by a virus or a bacterial infection. Symptoms of pneumonia caused by a virus come on more gradually and are usually milder than bacterial pneumonia. Most of the time, milder forms of pneumonia can be treated at home under the care of your physician.

When you catch pneumonia at school or work, it’s called community-acquired pneumonia. If you get it from the hospital or a nursing home, it’s called hospital or health-care acquired pneumonia. If your pneumonia symptoms are mild, your doctor may say that you have walking pneumonia.

Symptoms That Differentiate Pneumonia from the Common Cold2

Generally, the symptoms of a cold are not severe enough to warrant a call to your doctor. If they last longer than 10 days, come on suddenly and/or grow increasingly severe, you should contact your physician as soon as possible; you may have pneumonia. After reviewing the following 12 signs and symptoms of pneumonia, it should be easier for you to differentiate it from the symptoms of a common cold:

  • Fever
  • Shivering that may be accompanied by teeth-chattering chills
  • Cough that’s likely to be worse than the mild cough you may experience with a cold  
  • Mucus that may be rusty, green or blood-tinged
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid breathing
  • Rapid heart beat
  • Exhaustion or weakness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Pain in the chest that worsens when you take a deep breath or cough

Pneumonia in Older Adults

Symptoms of pneumonia in older adults may be different than those in their younger counterparts. They may be fewer or less severe; they may not include a fever; a cough may not be associated with mucus production. One of the primary symptoms of pneumonia in older folks is confusion or delirium. Those with pre-existing lung conditions may become sicker, faster, than those with healthier lungs.

If you recognize any of the pneumonia warning signs mentioned above, contact your doctor as soon as possible for a thorough physical examination and diagnostic testing.


Author: Deborah Leader RN, BSN, PHN


1 WebMD. What are the Symptoms of a Cold? Reviewed March 28, 2013.
2 WebMD. What is pneumonia? March 17, 2011.


Image: Flickr, foshydog, Cold?

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