Is it just a cold, or could it be pneumonia?

Your alarm clock has just gone off… but you really don’t know how you’re going to make it through this day! You’re in bed feeling terrible with an incredibly sore throat, a hacking cough and every muscle in your body is aching! Have you just caught a cold, or could this be pneumonia… how would you know?

What causes the common cold and pneumonia?

The common cold is caused by more than 200 different viruses, the most common being the rhinovirus, adenovirus, RSV, parainfluenza virus and coronavirus.

Pneumonia means that the tiny air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs become inflamed and fill up with fluid or pus/mucous and there are more than 30 different causes, including bacteria, viruses, mycoplasma and TB, among others.

What are some of the symptoms of the common cold?

A cold is often a milder illness – it shouldn’t last very long and gets better on its own. Signs of a cold also include a scratchy or sore throat, watery or runny nose, sneezing, nasal congestion, cough and a low-grade fever.

How do the symptoms of pneumonia differ from those of the common cold?

Although some of the symptoms may be similar, pneumonia carries some more serious symptoms you need to recognise, such as:

  • coughing that persists, worsens or produces phlegm (green, yellow, rusty-brown or blood-stained)
  • fever and/or chills
  • sweating or clammy skin
  • difficulty breathing (wheezing, tight chest feeling)
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain that typically increases on taking a deep breath in, or on coughing
  • confusion or delirium, especially in the elderly
  • a rapid pulse
  • loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea (in some cases)
  • extreme fatigue
  • headache, muscle and joint ache
  • bluish discolouration of lips and nail beds, in severe cases
  • dehydration

So, who is at greater risk of acquiring pneumonia?

Although anyone, at any age can acquire pneumonia, certain people are definitely more vulnerable than others, including smokers, people with emphysema, bronchitis, asthma, cystic fibrosis and bronchiectasis, as well as the elderly and those in frail care. Others who are at risk are children under the age of 2, people with neurological diseases like Parkinson’s, motor neuron disease and cerebral palsy.

Read  Fever & coughing: is it just flu or could it be TB?

With winter coming, what can we do to prevent the common cold and pneumonia?

  • cover coughs and sneezes well, to prevent airborne spread of infected droplets to others
  • sneeze into a tissue, throw it away and wash your hands
  • focus on good hand hygiene by washing your hands regularly
  • disinfect commonly touched items and infected surfaces
  • avoid sharing eating utensils or drinking from the same glass or bottle
  • quit smoking
  • get vaccinated against the flu
  • high risk patients can consider the pneumococcal vaccine to prevent certain strains of bacterial pneumonia
  • ensure your child’s routine vaccinations are up-to-date
  • follow a healthy lifestyle
  • do not go to work when you are contagious
  • do not send your children to day-care or school when still contagious

What can be done to treat the common cold and pneumonia?

Common colds usually resolve on their own without the need for antibiotics, within approximately 5 days. You can use over-the-counter decongestants, anti-histamines and mild painkillers to lessen the symptoms. Remember that rest and lots of fluids are the best cure.

Pneumonia is a potentially very serious condition, which may possibly require hospitalisation. The treatment may include antibiotics or, in some cases, anti-viral medication, nebulisers, chest physiotherapy, cortisone, or intravenous fluids.

Ask Hello Doctor for advice if you’re exhibiting any symptoms you think might be associated with a cold or pneumonia. Prevention is always better than cure!