Respiratory Diseases

Pneumonia and the Common Cold

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As you clutch your aching head, cough up globs of icky mucus and stare at the sea of waded up tissues on the floor, you begin to wonder if that cold you haven't been able to kick might be something more serious. It's possible. "Walking pneumonia," the more common term for community acquired pneumonia can be confused with the common cold. Walking pneumonia invokes an image of a creepy stick figure guy, probably wearing a dark cape, lurking about, glomming germs onto everyone he comes into contact with. And, it's sort of like that, as like the common cold, it's quite contagious.

Nearly 60,000 Americans die from a variety of pneumonia infections every year. Pneumonia a lung inflammation caused by a variety of sources, including bacteria, fungi, or other organisms. The elderly, the very young and those with compromised immune systems are at particular risk for contracting it. Pneumonia comes in a variety of strains, including hospital-acquired pneumonia (people on respirators are at special risk for this one), aspiration pneumonia (usually from vomiting and sucking it back into your lungs), pneumonia caused by opportunistic organisms, and pneumonia caused by emerging pathogens like SARS and the Bird Flu. But, the pneumonia most easily confused with the common cold is that with the most similar symptoms and transmission method, community acquired pneumonia, or more commonly called walking pneumonia.

Walking pneumonia and the common cold are transmitted through strikingly similar means. Respiratory secretions are the vehicles for both nasty bugs. This means little droplets escaping through coughing, sneezing or even though spittle when a person is speaking. The only difference in their transmission methods is that the common cold can also be spread through touch. The common cold can live on surfaces. You can pick it up by touching doorknobs or other surfaces that an infected person has recently touched. But, as you are lying ill on your couch you are not likely to remember if you were around someone who was coughing, sat next to someone who was a bit of a spit-talker or happened to touch a few too many doorknobs the other day. So, transmission is not likely to help you narrow down whether you are suffering from the common cold or pneumonia.

The common cold and walking pneumonia start off in a very similar manner and they often mirror one another for the first few days, making early intervention extremely difficult. The first few days of both will often start with a dry, itchy or sore throat, a headache and a slight fever. You may also experience sneezing and a runny nose or congestion with both illnesses.

The key to determining the difference between the two is their severity and their duration. An initial high fever is never due to the common cold and will immediately signal an infection and should immediately be brought to the attention of your doctor. And, a fever lasting beyond the first 3-5 days of a cold can also signal that you are suffering from something more serious, like walking pneumonia. A cold will also never cause you to have difficulty breathing or shortness of breath from your chest. You will, on the other hand, find that a cold will present you with difficulty breathing from nasal congestion.

As gross as it's going to be, you need to keep an eye on your tissues. The gunk that comes out of your chest when you cough and out of your nose when you blow is a telling sign for how your body is dealing with illness and whether not you are actually fighting off an infection. It should be a nice sort of clearish color, maybe light yellow. If it's tinged green and very thick or very, very yellow, you need to call your doctor, as it's a sign of infection.

While bloody mucus may panic you, and you may want to call your doctor just to be on the safe side, try not to worry too much at first, keeping in mind that after much irritation, your nasal passages are likely irritated and you may see mucus tinged with blood on occasion. If you are coughing up copious amounts of blood, report to the emergency room immediately.

Overall, the symptoms of the common cold should only last a total of 10-14 days. If they last any longer than that, it's a sign that your body is fighting something significantly more serious, a likely infection. You should bring it to the attention of your doctor immediately.

The most symptoms of walking pneumonia are:
Excessive Sweating
Dry or Productive Cough (often a thick, greenish or yellow phlegm)
Chest Pain
Sore Throat
Nausea or Vomiting

And Sometimes the following:
Eye Pain or Soreness
Muscle Aches, Joint Stiffness and Fatigue
Rapid Respiratory Rate
Ear Pain
Swollen Lymph Nodes in the Neck

But, the common cold's symptoms can be strikingly similar
Scratchy Sore Throat
Runny Nose
Fever (slight)

The common cold is an unfortunate fact of life. We have all been there and we've all been told the same thingrest and fluids. As uncomfortable as it is, it will go away on its own. But, walking pneumonia typically will not and you will need medical intervention to fully heal.

Pneumonia caused by bacteria will be treated with antibiotics. You'll likely begin to feel better almost immediately, but it will be important for you to finish your full course of medication to completely kill the infection. Viral pneumonia will be treated with antiviral medication if possible and told to rest and get plenty of fluids. Fungal pneumonia will be treated with antifungal medication. And finally, mycoplasma pneumonia will be treated with antibiotics.

During cold and flu season, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Get plenty of rest; eat a healthy diet and exercise to keep your body and immune system strong. There is evidence that Echinacea, goldenseal, astragalus, and zinc can help strengthen your immune system. And a cocktail of beta-carotene, vitamin A and vitamin C taken at the first sign of a cold or the flu can potentially help shorten its duration. At the first sign of a cold, take 100,000 IU of beta-carotene for 10-14 days, 100,000 units of vitamin A for 3 days and 500 milligrams of vitamin C for the best results.

Your health is something that only you can judge and something you are bound by the laws of nature to protect. If you feel in your gut that there is something much more serious wrong with you, even if you have only been ill for an hour, you know your body better than anyone else. Make the call and go to the doctor. Take care of your body and it will take care of you in return. Early treatment for pneumonia allows for a speedier recovery and for less downtime for you. Watch for the symptoms and take care of yourself.

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More about this author: Rachel Mcclain

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