Early Signs You’re Catching A Cold

No matter where you work or what vaccine you get, a common cold can sneak up on anyone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most adults catch two to three colds each year. When you start getting sick, it’s best to identify your illness early.

Early cold symptoms can disguise themselves as allergies or reactions to the weather. What’s the difference between a scratchy throat and a cold? Do your watery eyes mean anything? Pinpoint your illness early by learning the telltale symptoms of a common cold.

You Feel Unusually Fatigued

Man sleeps at his desk with a piece of paper over his face.

As the immune system works to defend the body, people may feel more tired than usual. Fatigue is a symptom of several diseases and events, according to Dr. Melissa Stoppler of MedicineNet. If your tiredness accompanies congestion, headache, and a scratchy throat, you may have a cold.

Persistent fatigue may come from seasonal depression or chronic fatigue. Usually, if you feel tired due to a cold, you’ll know within a couple of days. Get plenty of sleep and eat nutritious foods if you feel lethargic; your body might be able to fight off the cold.

Your Throat Feels Scratchy

Woman rubs her throat in pain.

When a cold initially comes on, you may feel your throat become scratchy. Sometimes, a ticklish throat comes from breathing in frosty air. But it can also be caused by cold and flu viruses irritating your throat.

WebMD calls a scratchy throat a “low threat level.” If you feel it, pay attention to your body, but don’t call out of work just yet. Robert T. Sataloff, associate dean for clinical academic studies at Drexel University, recommends waiting at least a day. Soothe your throat with some tea, or take a vitamin C supplement.

From Scratchy To Sore

Woman rubs her sore throat next to a window.

When you develop a cold, your throat will transition from scratchy to sore. According to WebMD, sore throats could either stem from a viral or bacterial infection. If it’s a virus, it’ll accompany other cold symptoms, such as a runny nose and cough. Sometimes, sore throats can come from allergies or air pollution.

The American Osteopathic Association recommends gargling saltwater and drinking warm liquids to reduce swelling. If you experience a fever lasting over two days, see a physician. Osteopathic physician Brett Scotch says you can prevent sore throats by washing your hands frequently, eating well, and getting plenty of sleep.

It’s Called A “Cold” For A Reason

Woman huddles underneath vibrant blankets.

Catching a cold causes many people to feel shivery. As your immune system picks up, you may develop a low-grade fever. This makes the air feel cooler by comparison, which can give you the chills. A mild fever is under 101.4°F (38.6°C). If your fever is over 103°F (39.4°C) or you’re experiencing violent chills, see a doctor.

Chills prepare the body to fight off an infection. There’s not much you can do for this symptom other than try to lower the fever. Children are more likely to experience drastic temperature shifts, so monitor them if they’re experiencing chills.

Is Your Headache Just A Headache?

An exhausted female shopper rubs her head while sitting with her shopping bags.

According to Everyday Health, around 60% of people experience headaches during a common cold. These pains could stem from the release of cytokines, molecules that kickstart the immune system. They could also result from swelling of the sinus cavity. If your symptoms gather above your chest, you may be experiencing a head cold.

If your headache is common cold-related, you can soothe it by drinking water and warm liquids. Hydration loosens the congestion in your sinuses, which may relieve the pain. If you have a humidifier or vaporizer, moisten the air with it to ease coughing.

Are You Crying, Or Is It An Eye Cold?

Woman's eyes water behind a white towel.

Have you heard of an eye cold? An eye cold is a term for the watery eyes that some people experience from a cold. According to VSP Vision Care, eye colds happen when germs from sneezing and coughing land in your eyes. Another potential cause is an adenovirus, the same type of virus that sparks head and chest colds.

Most eye colds will go away when symptoms subside. If your eye s become watery, take care not to let it develop into pink eye. Wash your hands frequently, and don’t rub your eyes. If your eyes produce mucus or you have trouble seeing, visit a doctor.

You Can’t Concentrate

Tired man leans on the wheel in a car.

During a cold, many people experience a “brain fog” that inhibits their concentration. According to health psychologist Andrew Smith, congestion in your sinuses can interrupt your brain function. If you feel unable to concentrate during a cold, know that it’s not just in your head.

Dr. Smith says that cognitive impairment can strike one to two days before the cold hits. Some people even struggle to concentrate for weeks afterward. During a 2012 study in BMJ Open, Smith noted that caffeine, pain relievers, a nap, and light exercise could lend some mental clarity during brain fog.

Don’t Feed A Cold If You’re Not Hungry

Jennifer Ruiz eats a chicken soup made by her family

The saying “feed a cold, starve a fever” doesn’t work when your appetite vanishes. In an interview with HuffPost, Dr. Donald Hensrud of Mayo Clinic explained that the immune system lowers our appetite. Part of it is a result of chemicals called cytokines, and the other is our brain saving energy for an immune response.

Dr. Hensrud adds that eating less decreases the number of substances that viruses “feed” on. But that doesn’t mean you can starve away the sickness. Eat when you’re hungry, but there’s no need to force yourself to eat.

Your Ear Hurts

Woman clutches her ear in pain.

While many people don’t associate earaches with the common cold, it can happen. Dr. Richard Rosenfeld of SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University says that the viral infection can inflame the eardrum. As fluid builds, it presses against the eardrum, causing a dull or sharp earache.

With an ear infection, the pain tends to be sharper and come on suddenly. During a cold, an earache will accompany other viral symptoms. The pain should disappear as the congestion goes down, but until then, you can take a pain reliever as needed.

The Notorious Nasal Congestion

Man uses a tissue to wipe his nose.

A runny nose is the most well-known symptom of a cold. The symptom isn’t rooted in producing more mucus; it comes from the sinuses swelling. As the virus irritates the sinuses, the nasal cavity swells and reduces airflow. This gives you a runny nose that eventually develops into a stuffy nose.

Most people can distinguish allergies from a cold if the congestion is combined with other cold symptoms. If you need some relief, doctors can prescribe medications. To prevent nasal congestion, keep up your hygiene and avoid allergens such as dust, pollen, and smoke.

Yes, Colds Can Create Colored Mucus

Tissues lay next to glasses and a cup of tea.

There’s a misconception that yellow or green mucus means that you have a sinus infection. But this is far from true. According to Dr. James Steckelberg of Mayo Clinic, both viral and bacterial infections produce colored mucus. The color comes from enzymes produced by the immune system, so it may not appear until a few days into the cold.

If you see green and yellow mucus at the beginning of an illness, rather than a couple of days in, you may have a bacterial infection. In the meantime, drink plenty of water to flush out the congestion and keep you hydrated.


1980s Blonde woman sneezes into a tissue.

If you’re sneezing unusually often, you may be developing a cold. During a cold, the mucous membranes in your sinuses become irritated. The body then releases an inflammatory mediator, histamine, which loosens the mucus. As your nose secretes more mucus, the irritation causes you to sneeze.

Sneezing fits can also stem from allergies. How can you tell the difference? Allergies usually accompany itchy eyes and never cause a fever. According to WebMD, cold symptoms will progress within a couple of weeks, whereas allergy symptoms won’t.

Your Joints Ache

Man clutches his aching knee on a beach.

Body aches commonly stem from vigorous exercise and poor posture. But if your joint pain comes with other cold symptoms, you’ll want to brace yourself. According to researcher and specialist Richard Deem, this pain comes from cytokines that the immune system releases. The body also produces hormones that make people feel more sensitive to aches.

Many people experience aching joints during cold weather, especially in the knees. You can take pain relievers if you need extra help. Rest assured that most people feel better after three to five days. If it lasts for more than a couple of weeks, call your doctor.

You’re Persistently Coughing

Man coughs in his bathroom.

The more congestion you have, the more you cough. Some people experience persistent coughs when they contract a cold. While annoying, coughing removes mucus from your lungs and windpipe. Dr. Williiam Kormos of Harvard Men’s Health Watch warns that a cough may continue for weeks after the cold has ended.

If you can’t sleep because of coughing, the National Sleep Foundation recommends propping up your pillow. Sitting up will help your body drain mucus, which will ease your coughing. Avoid forcing a cough, because the more sensitive your airways are, the more often you’ll cough.

You Can’t Taste Like You Used To

A visitor reacts upon tasting hakarl, fermented shark from Iceland, at the Disgusting Food Museum

While it’s rare to lose your sense of taste completely, a cold may impair your taste buds. The American Academy of Family Physicians credits this symptom to inflammation of the mouth. If you’ve been experiencing a cough or sore throat, that inflammation may have caused your mouth to swell, which can impair taste.

On top of that, taste and smell are closely linked. If your nose has been clogged for a while, a normally flavorful meal may taste bland. Once the symptoms subside, your taste buds should return. In the meantime, decongestants can relieve this symptom.

Chest Congestion (Bronchitis)

Man clutches his chest in pain.

Have you ever had a cold move from your head to your chest? This is called a chest cold, otherwise known as acute bronchitis. Chest congestion stems from irritation in the airways, similar to how our sinuses become stuffy.

In some situations, bronchitis can become severe. But most of the time, it’s a symptom of the common cold. Dr. Shilpa Mehta of Family Doctor recommends seeing a doctor if you struggle to breathe or have a fever above 103°F. Otherwise, prop yourself up in bed, use a humidifier, drink water, and get plenty of rest.

You Have A Low-Grade Fever

Nurse swipes a thermometer across her patient's forehead.

A low-grade fever is the most surefire way to determine whether or not you’re sick. Fevers are the body’s way to kill illness-causing pathogens called pyrogens. Low-grade fevers are above 98.6°F (37°C) and below 101°F (38.5°C). If your body temperature is higher than 101°F, you may have a fever.

Dr. Charles Davis of eMedicine Health recommends using decongestants for fevers since antibiotics won’t work. He also says that low-grade fevers may dehydrate the body, so water and electrolyte-heavy drinks should regulate your body temperature.

You Become Sensitive To Light

Man works on a laptop in a dark room.

With the combination of headaches and congestion, people with a cold may become sensitive to light. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, pink eye can also cause light sensitivity. If you can’t see well during a cold or bout of pink eye, visit your local ophthalmologist.

You can’t do much about light sensitivity except wait for it to alleviate. VSP Vision Care says that digital screens, such as a phone and computer, may strain your eyes and cause dizziness or fatigue. Limit your time around artificial lights if you can.

You Feel Run-Down

A woman covers her face during a difficult day

If you’re consistently feeling depleted at the end of the day, you might be headed toward a cold. Research in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that stressed people are more likely to get sick. One theory is that your body is so used to high levels of irritation that it doesn’t fight off viruses.

Consistent stress may result in a lack of sleep and nutrient-deprived appetite, so be on alert if you haven’t caught a break. Make an effort to catch more sleep and eat well before the cold forms.

If You Have Asthma, You May Get Asthma Attacks

Young girl uses her asthma inhaler.

Many people don’t associate asthma attacks with the common cold. But if you have asthma, the added inflammation can restrict your airways and result in an attack. Mayo Clinic claims that colds are the most common cause of asthma attacks, especially in children.

The best way to stop a cold-asthma attack is to prevent it. Wash your hands frequently, and avoid touching your eyes and mouth. If your asthma flares up while you’re sick, call your doctor to receive early prevention and treatment.

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