The common cold can be pretty uncomfortable. If you have one, you are likely experiencing a combo of miserable symptoms like a sore throat, stuffy nose and body aches that can feel like they go on forever.
Although many of us managed to avoid some rough bugs in the last few years due to restrictions like masking and social distancing, that is no longer the case. More and more people are getting sick with non-COVID illnesses that sometimes stretch on for weeks.
“Colds usually last three to ten days, but in some instances, you may be experiencing symptoms for three to four weeks,” said Dr. R. Peter Manes, an otolaryngologist at Yale Medicine.
While it is totally normal for a cold to hang on longer than two weeks, there are some things you should be aware of to make sure the prolonged symptoms aren’t a sign of something more serious. Here’s what to know if your sickness just won’t go away:
First, test to make sure your cold is not a sign of another illness.
“COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) all spread in similar ways and have symptoms that overlap with those of the common cold,” said Dr. John Swartzberg, a clinical professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health.
By the time people reach their teen years, they have a sense of what a typical cold feels like, Manes said. However, the symptoms can be conflated with other illnesses like COVID. It’s always best to test to see what you’ve got.
While most people are familiar with at-home COVID tests, there’s also an option to request at-home kits where you send your sample off to a lab to test for the flu and RSV along with COVID-19. You can also visit your doctor, who can run the tests for you.
Pay attention to your symptoms.
If you’ve ruled out other infections but your symptoms are progressively getting worse, this could be unrelated to your cold, experts said.
For instance, symptoms like prolonged shortness of breath, wheezing or chest pain are not associated with a cold. “These could be a sign of an asthma attack, pneumonia, or in the case of chest pain, even a heart attack,” Manes said. If you have any of these signs, it is important to not dismiss them and to get medical attention immediately.
Even though the common cold is caused by viruses, another possibility is that you could be having a bacterial infection ― like pneumonia or sinusitis ― following your viral infection as the body can be transiently weakened by a cold, said Dr. Marwan Azar, an infectious diseases physician at Yale Medicine.
Individuals who are immunocompromised are likely to be predisposed to a secondary bacterial infection after going through a cold. See a physician if you have any associated symptoms of a bacterial infection, such as a cough with thick phlegm, significant facial pain or swelling, Azar recommended.
A long cold could be because of lingering inflammation.
“If you have ongoing cold symptoms, such as a recurring cough or an irritated throat for longer than two weeks, it’s generally not because of a persistent infection but due to consequences of lingering inflammation from a cleared infection, specifically postnasal drip,” Azar said.
Postnasal drip occurs when your body produces mucus in the nasal and sinus cavities during a head cold and it drips down the back of your throat, leading to a tickle that prompts coughing. It takes time for your immune system to flush out all the mucus, so you may experience lasting congestion for a couple of days or even a week after the virus is no longer in your system.
This can get worse at night as the mucus can drip down more easily in a horizontal position, Azar said.
You also may not be giving yourself enough time to recover.
Your symptoms may not go away if you’re not giving them a chance to resolve. Adhering to your normal, busy schedule ― one filled with long work hours, housework, exercise or social activities ― can prolong your symptoms. Make sure you’re adequately resting, hydrating, getting enough sleep and more.
If that’s a struggle for you, find one thing you can cross off your to-do list, like nixing your weekly workouts or forgoing a few chores for an extra hour of sleep. You can also try over-the-counter medications to help abate your symptoms so you can give yourself the best chance to recover.
See your doctor ASAP if you’re still not improving.
If you’re treating your cold properly and your symptoms haven’t improved after three weeks, see a doctor.
Symptoms like wheezing with shortness of breath, lingering high fever, severe sore throat, and a cough that brings up considerable mucus, can be a sign of something serious if experienced for an extended period of time, so it’s important to get medical attention, Swartzberg said.
Your physician will be able to order tests for other illnesses (if you haven’t tested already) and conduct a physical exam to understand the severity of your symptoms. If left untreated, your symptoms can cause further complications and infection, so you’ll want to have it checked out.