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Pneumonia isn’t just a disease that happens in advanced age or one affecting those with compromised immune systems — it can happen to anyone. This is the same for the flu and the common cold, which can lead to pneumonia if not closely monitored and treated.
In the height of cold and flu season, it’s important to take precaution by knowing the symptoms of the common cold vs. flu or pneumonia, as well as when and where to seek help if you experience concerning symptoms.
Why Cold, Flu and Pneumonia are More Common in the Winter
Colder weather can truly bring more illness. It’s believed to be due to the fact that cold weather leads people to spend more time indoors and in closer quarters with others. So, by this theory, you’re exposed to more viruses and/or bacteria when the weather is chilly, which is why the winter months are known as "cold and flu season."
One thing you can do to help protect yourself is frequent handwashing. You can also avoid others who are ill and avoid going to work or spending time with others if you are sick, too. But even the best efforts to avoid these germs can still cause you to fall victim when they are all around you.
Common Winter Illnesses Explained
Learn the differences between some common winter illness, what to do if you catch one, and when it's time to head to an urgent care doctor or emergency room for help.
Upper Respiratory Infection (Common Cold)
An upper respiratory infection is the same as a common cold. It covers any infection that you get in your chest and head that's caused by a virus. You might experience a fever, a sore throat and congestion and pressure in your nose, head, sinuses and/or ears.
The common cold virus is very contagious, and you can catch one if you are around someone who is sneezing, coughing or touches you with the virus on his or her hands.
There isn't a medication that can cure a cold (antibiotics won’t work), but washing your hands frequently and avoiding contact with others who are sick can reduce your risk from catching one.
One of the most common winter ailments is the highly contagious flu.
Common symptoms of the flu include a high fever, body aches, chills, a cough and a lack of energy. It lasts for a week or two in most people, but severe cases could land you in the hospital if you don't rest and recover.
Because the flu can cause your airways to constrict, some people also get pneumonia. This can be one of the severe complications of the flu. If you’re having trouble breathing with the flu, it’s critical to call 911 or get to the nearest emergency room as fast as possible.
You can help prevent the flu by getting a yearly flu shot from your primary care physician or nearest Centra Care. If you do start to have flu-like symptoms, get to your doctor or urgent care right away. There is an antiviral treatment that can shorten your symptoms, but it needs to be taken in the 12- to 48-hour window after first showing symptoms. Your doctor can determine if the medication is right for you.
Pneumonia is inflammation or infection of the lung tissues. In infants and young children, pneumonia is usually caused by viruses like respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), metapneumovirus or flu.
Children and adults may get “walking pneumonia,” caused by mycoplasma bacteria, which causes respiratory infections. Other infections that affect the airways can also lead to pneumonia, such as bronchitis or the flu.
Pneumonia symptoms differ based on age. Infants may have fever, breathing and feeding problems. Adults and older children usually experience cough, shortness of breath, runny noses, chest tightness and fever.
It takes around five days to recover from viral pneumonia, and about two to three days after starting antibiotics to recover from bacterial pneumonia.
Pneumonia can happen to anyone, but infant and elderly age groups have the highest risk because they can have compromised immune systems or additional conditions. Not being vaccinated for pneumonia also increases one’s risk. Discuss these important vaccines with your doctor to make sure you and your family are protected.
When to Go to Urgent Care vs. ER
Generally speaking, an urgent care provider can address illnesses related to symptoms that include:
- Temperature of 102F or higher
- Slight wheezing/shortness of breath
- Worsening sore throat
- Persistent/worsening cough
If you experience any of these more critical symptoms, call 911 right away to get to emergency medical help:
- Difficulty breathing
- Persistent chest pain
- Cough producing phlegm, pus or blood
- Severe headache
- Mental confusion
- Blue or gray lips, skin or nails