8 Signs It's Not Just A Cold

When I came down with a hacking cough a few weeks ago, I wasn't too concerned — I assumed that I had simply caught a cold, the same cold that every human being in town seemed to be nursing at the time. But as the days passed, I noticed that my cold seemed different — my nose barely ran, but I had a hideous dry cough that woke me up in the middle of the night. I also wasn't getting any better; if anything, I seemed to be getting worse. But I was convinced that it was just a cold, because ... well, because it wasn't the flu, and those are pretty much your only two options, right?

After a week, I finally went to the doctor. I assumed he would pat me on the back and send me on my way; instead, he told me I had an acute upper respiratory infection — basically a cold that had gotten way out of hand. He sent me home with prescriptions for prednisone and some very strong, Trainspotting-level cough syrup. I took the medicines, and felt way better in less than a day.

How can you learn from my cough-related foolishness? Don't assume that literally any sickness that gives you a cough or runny nose is a cold. There are a number of illnesses that look like colds but are actually something more severe, and if you have one, a trip to the doctor can save you a lot of trouble — or even prevent a more serious illness from developing.

So if it seems like there's something just a little bit off about your next cold, don't assume that it's nothing — pay attention to your symptoms, and if they match up with any of the eight signs below, just go to the frickin' doctor, OK? Not everything can be solved by drinking Gatorade and watching old episodes of Gossip Girl.

1. Your Cold Got Better ... And Then It Got Worse

You seemed to have started off with a regular, garden variety cold — but while it seemed like you were on the mend for a little while, suddenly, you once again feel like a bagel that got dropped into a filthy sidewalk puddle. What on earth is going on with your danged body?

You may have come down with a secondary infection. When your immune system is weakened by a primary infection — say, your initial cold — other germs can take advantage of your lowered immunity. This can lead to something that appears to be one long illness, but is actually multiple illnesses. Common secondary infections can include sinusitis, bronchitis, and even pneumonia — serious stuff that either requires or can really benefit from medical attention.

2. Your Cold Has Lasted More Than Two Weeks

The average adult cold lasts for one week, or two in some circumstances. So if you've been hacking up a lung for the better part of a month, haul your wheezing butt to the doctor.

People who are lucky may only have a cold for three days; people who are really unlucky might be sick for two weeks. But if you cold has lasted for more than two weeks — and especially if it doesn't appear to be getting any better — let someone in a lab coat look at you.

3. Your Mucus Is Green

Yes, I know, I know: the last thing you want to do after blowing your nose all day is go pawing around in your trash can, checking your used tissues (why, I mildly nauseated myself just typing that!). But if your mucus is a color besides white or yellow, especially for an extended period of time, you may want to see a doctor.

When your mucus is yellow, it's because it is tinged with white blood cells that have died fighting off your cold — they give the stuff a yellow-y tint. Green mucus, on the other hand, is that color because it is especially thick with these dead white blood cells, so if can be a sign that you're sick with something more serious than the standard seasonal cold. Green mucus can be a sign of an infection, so if you're coughing up green gobs, just talk to your doctor — it'll be more pleasant than reading these last two paragraphs, I assure you.

4. Your Eyes Are Watery Or Itchy

If your irritated throat or drippy nose is paired with eyeballs that just can't stop watering, you may be having an allergy attack instead of a cold. Eye irritation is rare during colds, but extremely common among those suffering from allergies — and while the throat scratchiness and nasal drip common among allergy sufferers can look like a cold, watery eyes point to a different culprit.

So if you look like you've been weeping over those videos of dogs being reunited with their owners who just came back from military deployments (you watch them, I know you do), check and see if you're coming into contact with allergy triggers, including pollen or dander from your own beloved pet. This will help you treat your symptoms correctly — because all the cold medicine in the world isn't going to help if you're actually just allergic to your pet marmot.

5. You Suddenly Became Incredibly Ill

Colds usually have a bit of a build up, while a flu can go from "zero" to "I am an extra on The Walking Dead" over the course of a day. With the flu,"it hits you like a bolt of lightning," Steven Lamm, MD, internist and faculty member at NYU School of Medicine, told Prevention. "You’ll likely run a fever of above 101F, and you'll be flat out." So if you suddenly feel too sick to function, know that you probably have a flu on your hands — and it's good to know sooner rather than later, because most antiviral treatments for flu work best when taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms.

6. You're Mostly Coughing

We're conditioned to believe that anything that involves coughing or sneezing is just a cold. But an illness whose primary symptoms are coughing, wheezing, and pain or tightness in your chest could be bronchitis — and since it commonly occurs in people who have just had colds, you might not even notice that you've caught it. Though some cases of bronchitis clear up on their own, others may require medication.

7. You've Had Chest Pain Or Fever For More Than 3-5 Days

Pneumonia symptoms often look similar to a bad cold or flu, but it's something far worse. You shouldn't freak out every time you cough or run a fever, of course — you're more likely to get a cold or catch the flu than come down with pneumonia. But again, if a few days of rest don't seem to have done much for you, and you're not seeing any improvement in your symptoms — especially when it comes to fever, chest pain, fatigue, and phlegmy coughs — see a doctor.

Bacterial pneumonia can develop as a secondary infection after a person catches a flu, and comes into contact with a streptococcus pneumonia bacteria while their immune system is weakened — and bacterial pneumonia can cause permanent lung damage if you don't seek medical attention.

8. It Still Hurts To Swallow After A Couple Days

Strep throat can often feel like a run of the mill cold-related sore throat at first; but over a few days, if you have strep throat, your symptoms will feel more severe, and may include pain when swallowing, fever, and the tell-tale white spots on your tonsils.

If you think your sore throat could be strep, head straight to the doctor — they can give you an easy test to figure out if you do indeed have strep, and if you do, they can give you the proper antibiotics to help you feel better. It's important to get your strep throat treated — letting it linger can lead to serious illnesses like rheumatic fever or even inflamed kidneys.

And keep an eye on things after your strep infection dies down — scarlet fever, an infection commonly identified by a red skin rash, can follow strep throat infection, and even though it is most common among kids, adults can catch it, too — my boyfriend in college came down with it, and let it linger for a long time because he didn't think it was something an adult could catch.

Scarlet fever, like many of these illnesses, is dangerous if left untreated — so basically, if anything out-of-the-ordinary happens over the course of your cold or flu, just go see a doctor. They won't mind if it turns out to be nothing, and trust me: going to the doctor is less of a pain than spending the next several weeks explaining to everyone you know how a 22-year-old managed to catch "the Velveteen Rabbit disease."

Images: Sodanie Chea/Flickr; Giphy (8)