11/30/2013 10:56 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

6 Signs It's More Than A Cold


By Jennifer Acosta Scott
Medically reviewed by Niya Jones, M.D., MPH

When you're under the weather, it can be tempting to skip going to the doctor and instead huddle in bed with your favorite blanket. Though that approach might be fine for treating the common cold, it won't work so well for more severe ailments. It's common for people to put off going to the doctor for serious illnesses because the conditions often start out as something minor.

"Most serious illnesses originally [start out] as colds," noted Dr. David Weitzman, M.D., an urgent care physician in North Carolina and a board member of the American Academy of Urgent Care Medicine.

So how can you tell the difference between a cold and a condition that requires medical attention? These six signs are red flags that you need more than a cold treatment.

High Fever
If you're an adult and you have a fever higher than 102, it's likely that your body is dealing with more than a cold, explained Weitzman. Though a moderate fever can actually help your immune system kill bacteria and viruses, going to the doctor is probably a good idea to address any underlying issues.

Rebound Illness
Feeling mildly sick, then better and then sick again could be a sign of a "superinfection" -- a more serious secondary infection that results when your immune system is weakened from a mild illness. "It could be that the immune system got tired and another infection was able to come in," Weitzman said. "Or the normal flora in your body that protected you from getting sick got thrown off a little and other bacteria came in. Or you were exposed to a second type of virus and got sick again." In any case, he said, your doctor would probably like to see you to make sure there's nothing serious going on.

Severe Headaches
Headaches so intense they cause problems with your concentration or ability to think clearly should be checked out by a doctor. This could indicate a disorder that affects the central nervous system, like meningitis. "Most people [with meningitis] get that fuzzy, lightheaded feeling," Weitzman noted. Don't tough it out -- make an appointment.

Feeling "Run Over By A Freight Train"
If you're so achy and weak that even getting out of bed seems like a monumental task, it's time to seek medical help. Muscle aches and fatigue might mean you have the flu, a contagious respiratory illness caused by a virus. Contrary to popular thought, there are things your doctor can do to make your flu experience slightly less miserable. For example, your doctor can prescribe an antiviral medication, which weakens the flu virus and shortens the duration of your symptoms. "It also prevents the flu from causing bad secondary problems, like with the lungs," Weitzman added.

Having A Chronic Condition
People who have significant health problems, like diabetes, hypothyroidism or kidney disorders, should go to the doctor even if they have only cold symptoms. Think of it as better safe than sorry. "I don't care if you think it's a cold or not -- I'd want to see you," Weitzman said. For example, people with diabetes can have problems controlling their blood sugar when they're sick. A visit to the doctor could prevent potential complications.

Heart Palpitations
Many people think nothing of the occasional irregular heartbeat, but sickness accompanied by arrhythmia might mean something more serious, like dehydration or a virus that's attacking the heart or its lining. A pulmonary embolism, which is a blood clot that enters the lungs, can also cause heart palpitations.

Bonus Tips: Communicating With Your Doctor
Once you've decided that going to the doctor is your best bet, you can help the doctor give you an accurate diagnosis by being as detailed and honest as possible about your symptoms and the circumstances surrounding them. Weitzman said that "communicating freely with your doctor and explaining everything that's going on is the most important thing anyone can do."

Make sure to list any medications you're taking, whether they're prescription or over-the-counter, and explain all of your symptoms thoroughly. If you've done anything out of the ordinary recently, be sure to mention that too. Even if your health details seem a little strange, don't worry -- it's likely your doctor has heard it all before.

"In my 30 years of practice, you'd be amazed at what I've heard and seen," Weitzman said. "No one really catches me off guard anymore."

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"6 Signs It's More Than a Cold" originally appeared on Everyday Health


  • Hand Washing
    There may be no more promoted solution to avoiding the flu this year (besides the flu shot, of course) than diligent hand washing. As many as 80 percent of infections are transmitted via contact like sneezing, coughing or touching surfaces that have been sneezed or coughed on, says Tierno, and then touching "your mouth, eyes or nose, which are the conduits of viruses into the body." He recommends scrubbing before eating, drinking or touching your face, and disinfecting shared surfaces in the home (like the bathroom) and the office, like phones, computers and fridge door handles.
  • Sleep
    While you're off in dreamland, your body gets to work repairing cells and injuries you may have incurred during the normal day's wear and tear, says Tierno. Getting your seven to nine hours a night means your body can repair and heal itself and ward off infections. "If you don't get the appropriate sleep, that system is not operating and you're on a steady decline over time," he says. In fact, skimping on sleep is as disruptive to the immune system as stress, according to a 2012 study. And earlier research suggested that sleep patterns may play a role in a gene that helps fight off bacteria and viruses.
  • Exercise
    Getting your blood pumping regularly can increase the activity of a type of white blood cells that attacks viruses. Shoot for an hour a day, says Tierno -- but not necessarily all at once. "Even if it's walking around the office, up stairs, down stairs, to and from work -- it doesn't have to be continuous," he says.
  • Zinc
    Getting the proper amount of the right nutrients and minerals as part of a healthy diet "leaves the body in optimal condition to fight the battle," says Tierno. This means cutting back on sugary, fatty foods and upping your intake of vegetables, fruit and lean protein, he says. One of those nutrients that gets a particularly healthy reputation during cold and flu season is zinc, and for good reason. "Zinc interferes with viruses gaining full access to our cells," he says. "Zinc may block certain metabolic activity." While it's not the end-all cure, foods rich in zinc, like oysters and wheat germ, may offer some protection.
  • Garlic
    The anti-microbial properties of this pungent bulb (and its relative, the onion) can fight off certain bacteria and viruses, says Tierno, as can the compounds in other herbs and spices, like thyme. It's likely due to the compound allicin, which seems to block infections. Try it in your next bowl of soothing chicken soup!
  • Water
    Thankfully, most of us are inhabiting cozy-warm homes this winter, but those cranking radiators come with a downside. Indoor winter air is much dryer than our bodies would like. Without sufficient moisture, says Tierno, "immune system cells can't optimally work," so it's important to stay hydrated. (A humidifier can also help.)
  • Skipping Happy Hour
    Alcohol suppresses both the part of the immune system that protects you from coming down with something and the part that fights off the germs already in your system, so knocking a few too many back can put you at increased risk for catching the bug going around -- and having trouble kicking it.
  • Laughter
    A positive attitude can take you far -- even, maybe, to age 100. But along the way, a life of laughter and optimism could also help you sniffle through fewer bouts of the flu or colds. While there's much that's still not well understood about the process, it seems that certain immune cells are produced by a big belly laugh, says Tierno.
  • Massage
    A favorite solution for de-stressing, massage can also help you stay physically healthy. While there's been little research into exactly how it works, massage certainly increases circulation, which may help promote the general "state of wellness in the body," says Tierno. "Nutrients are passed around better, the blood flow is better," he says. "It's a very useful thing to get a massage."
  • Sex
    A 1999 study found that getting frisky a couple of times a week can boost immunoglobin A, an antibody that fights off colds. Just make sure your partner isn't already sick!