Cold symptoms are incredibly common (hence the name). But not every stuffy nose or splitting headache is caused by your friendly neighborhood rhinovirus. And when you’re battling something other than a typical rhinovirus, you may need to talk to your doctor about finding the right treatment.
The following signs could mean you’re dealing with something other than a common cold, even if the symptoms feel similar.
Sign #1: Symptoms linger
A typical cold (caused by a rhinovirus) is usually pretty fast-acting. That’s because your immune system will typically be able to eliminate those specific intruders in short order. As a result, colds usually last somewhere around 3 to 7 days. It’s possible that you might encounter a particularly stubborn cold that lasts somewhere around two weeks.
As a result, symptoms that persist for longer than two weeks, even at lower levels, might be a sign that something else is going on. In many cases, lingering symptoms may point to something like a sinus infection (also called sinusitis).
Sign #2: You have a sinus headache
There’s a difference between the typical kind of headache you might get from a cold and a sinus headache. And that difference usually depends on location. A sinus infection will lead to a “full” feeling behind your nose and eyes–often, quite a painful feeling. A cold-related headache will likely be more generalized and may not have any feelings of pressure related to it.
So if you feel that pressure and fullness behind your eyes, it’s a good bet you may be battling a sinus infection, and that means you may need to see a physician.
Sign #3: You experience symptoms chronically
A cold will come and go. True, there are cold “seasons” (you might catch a new cold around the time school starts, for example). But there’s a difference between periodic infection (because your children bring home germs) and chronic infection.
If you find yourself sneezing every spring right around the same week in April or every time you’re around cats, this could indicate an allergy. Likewise, if you’re sneezing for three weeks without respite, you should see a doctor to see if they can help with symptoms and make sure there’s no infection.
Sign #4: You have a sore throat
Discomfort of the throat or when swallowing is a pretty common cold symptom so that in and of itself is not necessarily a sign that you’re experiencing something other than a cold. But a severe, prolonged, or periodically sore throat can be an indication that you’re dealing with something more like a sinus infection or another infection like strep. Both cold and sinus infections cause sore throats due to postnasal drip.
Essentially, your nose and sinuses become clogged with fluid–and that fluid has to go somewhere. Often, you’ll feel a tickle down your throat. The draining fluid then irritates your throat. Having a sore throat for a few days could be a sign of a cold–but a longer presentation could be a sign of something else (either a sinus infection or the work of another virus).
Sign #5: Your stuffy nose persists after your other symptoms are gone
In some cases, a sinus infection may develop during the course of your cold or respiratory infection. (The fluid gets trapped in your sinuses, where a secondary infection takes root.) So if that dull ache in your sinuses remains, but your sneezing has stopped, this could be a sign that such a secondary infection has taken hold.
Get to the bottom of your symptoms
Once you’ve determined you don’t have a cold, the next step is going to be figuring out what is causing your symptoms. Sinusitis (a sinus infection) is quite likely, and it’s something your doctor may be able to treat. In other words, if you don’t have a cold, you should make an appointment with your doctor.