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How to Spot Pneumonia Symptoms: What Seems Like a Cold or Flu Could Be More Serious

By Carolyn Heneghan January 13, 2016 Posted in: Personal Health , Article

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Everyone has those days when they're feeling under the weather but can't quite identify why. It's easy to take a sick day or two and sleep off your ill health, but what if you're ignoring something more serious than your average bug? The symptoms of a common cold or the flu can be very similar to pneumonia symptoms, and it's important to know when to call your doctor.

In the spectrum of respiratory illnesses, the flu is generally worse than the common cold. Pneumonia, meanwhile, can be more serious than both, especially for young children and the elderly. In order to identify what is ailing you or a loved one, it's best to evaluate each individual symptom you're experiencing. This process can go a long way toward deciding whether it's time to seek medical attention.

"Pneumonia might come from a complication of a cold or flu, so it's not always easy to separate the illnesses," says Dr. Sara Peña, program director of the family medicine center at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center. "But there are differences between all three that can help you tell what you're dealing with."


Colds tend to come on gradually, and the flu registers suddenly. "The flu's symptoms can arise quickly due to typical fever-induced body aches and chills, which cause the muscles and joints to ache," says Dr. Peña. Pneumonia tends to make you feel suddenly worse following what you thought was just a cold or flu.


A fever is usually indicative of the flu, while a cold will likely produce other nonfever symptoms. The American Lung Association (ALA) reports that the fever associated with pneumonia can be either mild or high, with the highest fevers often accompanying bacterial pneumonia. A pneumonia-derived fever can either be persistent or episodic, with a tendency to rise rapidly. It may seem to go away before eventually coming back worse. Be on the lookout for shaking chills, as well.


Coughing is a common symptom of all three illnesses, but a specific type of cough indicates pneumonia. A pneumonia-derived cough is persistent, worsening, and classically blood-tinged if bacterial, but viral pneumonia typically causes a nonproductive cough. Pneumonia may also carry a cough that initially starts off dry before producing mucus after a few days, according to the ALA.

Aches, Pains, and Fatigue

Muscle and body aches, headaches, and fatigue are telltale symptoms of the flu, but they can also indicate pneumonia. Chest pain is usually the major indicator, particularly if you experience labored breathing or a persistent cough. Sharp pains can result from inflammation of the lung or chest lining; this is known as pleurisy.


With the right treatment, you should typically recover from pneumonia in a matter of days or weeks, but you might suffer from fatigue for a month or more. Doctors will likely recommend a follow-up appointment to make sure the infection is clearing. Both the common cold and the flu tend to clear up within two weeks when treated properly.

When to Call a Doctor

Persistent symptoms over a period of a few days is the main warning sign of pneumonia and should determine if you seek medical care. According to Dr. Peña, "You should call the doctor if you have an ongoing fever that isn't helped from taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Generally, if there is no improving trend from an illness you earlier considered to be a cold or flu, it's recommended to get yourself checked out."

It isn't easy to differentiate between the effects of a cold or flu and what may be pneumonia symptoms. Generally, if your symptoms worsen or last a long time, make sure to connect with your doctor, who will determine the most effective course of treatment.

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