12 Signs Your Cold May be Pneumonia


pneumoniaIf congestion and sneezing has you up to your ears in crinkled tissue and your nose is red and sore from all that nose-blowing, you may be well on your way to a common cold. But how can you be sure that your mild cold symptoms are not indicative of something more dangerous like pneumonia? And what are the signs of pneumonia? Learn the signs of pneumonia so you know what to look out for if your cold starts to take a sharp turn. Let’s start by first reviewing the symptoms of the common cold.

Unlike pneumonia, cold symptoms are usually fairly mild and short-lived. Once you are exposed to the cold virus, symptoms usually develop within 4 days. Initially, you may have a sore throat that is 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 will not develop 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 clear fluids and over-the-counter pain relievers such as Tylenol or Motrin may be recommended by your physician to help you feel more comfortable as you recover.1 If you find you are not recovering as quickly as you typically do with a cold, look out for signs of infection, as well as the signs and symptoms of pneumonia. Here is what you should look out for.

Types of Pneumonia2

If you have an illness that started as a cold, but has progressed, you may be wondering, “What does pneumonia feel like?” It is a good idea to know the signs and symptoms of pneumonia in case you or someone you love develops it. Although coming down with a cold is usually no cause for alarm, it does weaken the immune system, which increases your risk for pneumonia. Additionally, infants, the elderly and people who have ongoing health conditions like COPD are at a higher risk for developing pneumonia.

Pneumonia is almost always caused by a virus or a bacterial infection. Viral pneumonia often begins as a cold or the flu, then develops into pneumonia. Symptoms of pneumonia caused by a virus come on more gradually and are usually milder than bacterial pneumonia. Bacterial pneumonia often occurs after a viral illness, but comes from common bacteria (usually streptococcus pneumoniae or mycoplasma pneumonia) that the body is unable to fight off because the previous illness lowered the immune system. In rare cases, pneumonia can also be caused by a fungus. When you catch pneumonia at school or work, it is called community-acquired pneumonia. If you get it from the hospital or a nursing home, it is called hospital or health-care acquired pneumonia. 

Most of the time, milder forms of pneumonia (sometimes called “walking pneumonia”) can be treated at home under the care of your physician, and you will most likely improve in a few weeks. However, rest is essential to recovery, so do not push it. If you have pneumonia, it is important that you stay home and recover, even if it is a mild case. Viral pneumonia is quite contagious, but regardless of whether you could spread your infection, your body needs time to get better.

If your pneumonia symptoms are more severe and your doctor determines that you have bacterial pneumonia, they will likely prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection. Antibiotics are not effective for viral pneumonia, however, so you may be prescribed over-the-counter medications or antiviral agents if the cause of your pneumonia is viral. No matter what the cause or the severity, it is critical that you get plenty of rest and remain hydrated. 

Symptoms That Differentiate Pneumonia from the Common Cold2

When you are looking at the signs and symptoms of pneumonia versus a cold, it is helpful to look at duration, severity and types of symptoms. Unlike pneumonia, cold symptoms often do not require that you stay home sick, and generally, the symptoms of a cold are not severe enough to warrant a call to your doctor. If your symptoms last longer than 10 days, come on suddenly and/or grow increasingly severe, you should contact your physician as soon as possible as 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.

So what does pneumonia feel like?

  • Fever, often high
  • Shivering that may be accompanied by teeth-chattering chills
  • Cough that is 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
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting, especially in small children
  • Diarrhea
  • Confusion, particularly in older people
  • Sharp pain in the chest that worsens when you take a deep breath or cough

Signs of Pneumonia in Small Children and Older Adults

If you see signs and symptoms of pneumonia in your small child, it is important to see your doctor right away. Pneumonia is the number one most common reason for children in the United States to be hospitalized, and is the world’s leading cause of death for children under 5 years old. If you have any doubts about whether your young child may have pneumonia, seek medical attention just in case. 

Older people are at a higher risk of developing and dying from pneumonia. Symptoms of pneumonia in older adults may be different than those in their younger counterparts. They may be fewer or less severe,may not include a fever and a cough may not produce mucus. One of the primary symptoms of pneumonia in older folks is confusion or delirium. You may also see a bluish tinge to the lips and fingertips. 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.

Frequently Asked Questions: Pneumonia or Cold?

What does it feel like when you have pneumonia?

If you have had a cold and suddenly feel really and truly sick, you may wonder, “What does pneumonia feel like?” Generally speaking, pneumonia feels pretty awful, and the signs and symptoms of pneumonia usually tell you that something is definitely wrong. You will experience pain when you breathe or cough, fever and chills, significant fatigue and shortness of breath. Even if you have mild or “walking” pneumonia, you will still feel pretty terrible. So, if you have a cold that takes a turn for the worse, see your doctor to get checked for pneumonia. 

When should I call a doctor if I think it is pneumonia?
If you or a loved one has signs of pneumonia, make an appointment to see your doctor. Pneumonia can get worse quickly, and you will want to know what kind of pneumonia you have so you can treat it properly. If you or a loved one experience trouble breathing, have severe chest pain, a high fever or worsening symptoms, seek medical attention right away. If you or a loved one is in a high risk population, do not hesitate to seek medical attention, as pneumonia can develop into a life-threatening condition. 

How is pneumonia diagnosed?
Your doctor will get a thorough medical history, including recent travel, occupation, exposure to illnesses and contact with animals in order to help determine whether your pneumonia could be bacterial, fungal or viral. Next, your doctor will listen to your lungs when you breathe to ascertain the amount of fluid buildup in the lungs. Finally, your doctor will likely order tests to finalize your diagnosis. Those tests could include blood tests, chest x-rays, pulse oximetry, sputum (mucus) tests and more. High risk groups may receive more in-depth testing, including checking their oxygen saturation


1 WebMD. What are the Symptoms of a Cold? Reviewed March 28, 2013.

2 WebMD. What is pneumonia? March 17, 2011.


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