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Achoo! That sneeze could mean a cold…or something else entirely. Here are 3 signs that may help you determine if it is a cold—and how to take the next steps to feeling well again.


September 20, 2023

A nagging cough and runny nose might mean you just have a plain old cold…but not all the time. Often, colds can be the precursor to other, sometimes more serious illnesses such as bronchitis, pneumonia, sinus infections and COVID-19. Here are 3 ways to tell if your “cold” might be something else.

Sign #1: Your Symptoms Came Out of Nowhere

woman sitting on a couch holding a tissue to her nose and a cup of tea

While you never want to catch a cold, chances are that you can recognize one before it fully develops. Typically, a cold comes on slowly; you might feel run down, then wake up with a sore throat or a runny nose. From there, you could develop other symptoms such as coughing and sneezing. A cold’s onset usually takes several days, with most symptoms lasting between a few days to two weeks.

On the other hand, an illness like the flu might take you by surprise. Symptoms of other seasonal illnesses, including the flu, can develop rapidly—in a matter of hours instead of days. While you might feel great in the morning, by the afternoon you could have a fever and feel achy and run down. If your symptoms appeared with no warning, chances are it’s not a cold. Mild allergies, which share similar symptoms to the common cold, also occur immediately in the presence of an allergen and could be the reason behind those sneezes.  

Concerned that it might be the coronavirus? The onset of the symptoms of COVID-19 tends to be gradual and when those symptoms do appear, they may seem similar to other respiratory illnesses. If you’re concerned that you have something more than a simple cold or allergies, consider getting a COVID-19 test and medical evaluation at your neighborhood MedExpress center, as COVID-19 symptoms present so similar to cold and flu.

Sign #2: You Have a Fever

a mother holding a thermometer reading one-hundred-point-four degrees as her sick child lies in bed

A cold has many symptoms, including a headache, runny or stuffy nose, sore throat and sneezing, but for adults, it’s not often accompanied by a fever. Often, though, children with colds may have a fever. Many other respiratory illnesses such as pneumonia and the flu can cause you to have a fever and are more likely the cause behind that cough, runny nose or headache. Sometimes other illnesses, like bronchitis, can be brought on by a cold, so you may have developed a fever after you initially began to feel under the weather. These can include ear infections and sinus infections too, so it’s important to seek medical evaluation if you notice other additional symptoms developing.

Several of these symptoms, including a fever, dry cough and tiredness, are also symptoms of COVID-19. If you’re concerned that you have COVID-19, quarantine yourself until you can be tested at your local MedExpress. Please note: If you experience difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, chest pain/pressure and loss of speech or movement, seek medical attention immediately.

Have you already been vaccinated? According to CDC1, people who are fully vaccinated and do not have immunocompromising conditions can participate in most activities with a low risk of catching or transmitting COVID-19, but it’s best to take additional prevention measures, such as wearing masks, in high-risk situations.

Sign #3: You’re STILL Sick

It’s been two weeks, you’ve gone through three boxes of tissues and you’ve skipped four meals because you haven’t felt well enough to eat. It might be obvious that you don’t have a cold, but if your symptoms haven’t changed, it can be hard to tell. Another way to tell the difference between a cold and another seasonal illness is the length of time that you experience your symptoms. The average cold lasts about three days to two weeks, so if your cough isn’t going away, it could be because the cold medicine isn’t cutting it.

COVID-19, allergies, pneumonia, sinus infections and acute bronchitis can last for weeks—or sometimes months— rather than days. Keeping track of both your symptoms and when you first felt sick can help you determine if this pesky sickness is a cold or if it might be something else. If you’ve been sick for over a week and your symptoms are worsening or lingering for too long, you should seek the help of a medical professional.

What Should I Do Now?

While you may want to just curl up in bed and stay there forever, there are more ways to get better – though good old-fashioned rest doesn’t hurt! If you need some immediate relief, try using a saline nasal rinse to help alleviate sinus pressure and congestion, or gargling with warm salt water if you have a sore throat. Over the counter medications can help reduce symptoms, too, but make sure to consult with your primary care provider before starting a new medicine. If you’re still feeling under the weather, don’t sick it out—stop in at your local MedExpress. We have convenient hours, so you can start feeling better sooner. There’s no need to be sick this season—trust MedExpress to help get you feeling better in no time.  

Originally posted November 4, 2019. Updated September 20, 2023.

This content was medically reviewed by Dr. Chris Howard, DO.


1 CDC: Science Brief: COVID-19 Vaccines and Vaccination. Last updated September 15, 2021. Accessed September 20, 2023.

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