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If Your Cold Lingers, Here Are 13 Things It Could Mean

If your cold symptoms won't quit, you may have something more serious.

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Young ill man in bed at homePhoto: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

You might still have a cold

The first cause of a lingering cold, according to Satesh Bidaisee, DVM, MSPH, EdD, professor of public health and preventive medicine at St. George’s University in Grenada, West Indies, is the cold itself. “The cold is a common health challenge for people around the world, especially in children who commonly experience the cold as often as once per month, and adults on average two to four times per year,” he says. “However, while the common cold is usually cleared within one week, any persistence of the cold for as long as beyond two weeks is considered lingering.”

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You might have another cold

Especially during cold season, you can catch a virus, fight it off, and then be exposed to an entirely new cold; the new virus and new symptoms can blend with the ones you just fought off and make it seem like one long illness. “There are literally hundreds of viruses that can cause a cold so it’s common to get more than one in a given year,” says Joshua Scott, MD, primary care sports medicine physician at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, California. This is often the case with children.

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It might be a side effect of your medication

If you have a persistent cough, it can be from a number of causes. One possibility, according to Kristine Arthur, MD, an internist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, is a medication side effect. “A chronic dry cough is a common side effect of ace inhibitors, such as lisinopril, benazepril, and ramipril, which are a type of blood pressure medication. “There shouldn’t be any other symptoms like nasal congestion, sore throat, or sinus pressure, however, so if you take one of these medications, talk to your doctor about possibly switching to another one.”

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You might have chronic post nasal drainage

If you have a productive cough with clear or white phlegm that persists, Dr. Arthur says it may be due to chronic post nasal drainage, which tends to get worse at night when you’re lying down. “Often people complain of nasal congestion and having to clear their throat constantly,” she adds. “It may also be caused by allergies and get worse when the weather changes.”

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It might be allergies

A common cause of a runny nose and a cough that mimics a viral illness can be allergies triggered by your environment. “Depending on the season, allergic symptoms can last much longer and are often accompanied by itchy, watery eyes,” says Dr. Scott. “Tree pollen can often be high in the winter so symptoms of allergies can be at the same time as the ‘cold season.'”

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You might have bacterial sinusitis

“Sometimes, as the viral illness starts to disappear, new symptoms like pressure in the sinuses, headache, and sometimes fever can occur,” explains Dr. Scott. “This happens when the congestion from a cold causes the right environment for bacteria to grow.” It most often occurs between 10 to 14 days after the onset of a cold and requires a prescription from a doctor to clear up.

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You might have asthma or COPD

If you have a cough accompanied by wheezing that does not go away, Dr. Arthur warns that asthma or COPD (chronic obstructive lung disease) might be the cause. Typically asthma shows up earlier in life. COPD may present later in people who smoked at some point. Your doctor may order a lung test for an accurate diagnosis, and treatment can begin with various types of inhalers.

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You might have pneumonia

If your symptoms are (or turn into) a consistent cough accompanied by brown or green mucus, a fever, and shortness of breath, it could signal an infection like pneumonia, according to Dr. Arthur. “Most people will typically feel bad in general and may complain of their lungs hurting,” she says. “This is most likely to affect people with chronic lung disease, like asthma or emphysema, but can also affect perfectly healthy people.” If you experience any of these symptoms, seek medical help immediately, as this is a serious and potentially life-threatening illness that requires prompt treatment.

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You might have acid reflux

If you’ve been experiencing a bad taste in your mouth that’s accompanied by a dry cough and hoarseness, you may be battling the digestive disease known as acid reflux. It’s quite common, affecting approximately 13 per cent of Canadians weekly, according to the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research. “Symptoms include heartburn, nausea, burping and regurgitation and often worsen after heavy or spicy meals, when you’re lying down, or if you take anti-inflammatory pain medication like ibuprofen regularly,” says Dr. Arthur. “Treatment with antacid medications can help, but an evaluation by a doctor is necessary if symptoms persist beyond a few weeks.”

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You might have something stuck in your body

As strange as it might sound, people do get stuff stuck in their airways—like their nose. This is especially true for small children. This can cause runny nose symptoms that can last for weeks, or until the foreign object is removed. “This is usually accompanied by a foul smell; the only treatment is the removal of the foreign body by a healthcare professional,” adds Dr. Scott.

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You might have tuberculosis

This serious bacterial disease triggers persistent, uncontrollable coughing, and you may cough up blood plus have a fever, chills, and night sweats. While TB is much rarer these days thanks to a vaccine, cases still occur. “This infection is very contagious, so if you have a weakened immune system, have been travelling outside of the country or are exposed to anyone with TB you are at increased risk,” warns Dr. Arthur. “It is extremely important to be checked right away for this, as it is important not to expose others.” She recommends giving your doctor’s office a heads up if you have any of these symptoms; plan to wear an appropriate mask when you arrive for your appointment.

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You might be immunodeficient

Lingering colds can also be a sign of that your body’s defense system—your immunity—is compromised. This means you’re less able to fight off infection, explain Dr. Bidaisee. “Dietary insufficiency, inadequate sleep, dehydration, stress, and systemic viral infections such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) can reduce the body’s ability to resolve a cold,” he says. “Immunocompromised conditions require supportive treatment such as dietary supplementation, rest, fluids, stress management, and antimicrobial therapy.”

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You might have cancer

Finally, if you have a cough that persists despite your use of over-the-counter or prescription meds—and particularly if you are or were a smoker or have had exposure to asbestos—you may have a symptom of cancer, says Dr. Arthur. “Typically symptoms are present for weeks to months, and there may be no other symptoms although some people may have generalized weakness, decreased appetite, shortness of breath, and weight loss,” she says. As a precaution, always make an appointment with your doctor to rule out such a serious diagnosis.

Next, check out these 50 ways to avoid catching a cold this season.

Originally Published on Reader's Digest