Cold and flu season is here, and as we barrel toward winter, it’s only going to get worse. Many of us will likely encounter some sort of illness, but our expectation is that we’ll shake it off after a few days.
However, that may not always be the case. Just like some experience long COVID following a coronavirus infection, you could be at risk of a “long cold” after a dealing with the common cold or flu, according to a recent study.
The findings, published in The Lancet’s eClinicalMedicine, examined the long-term impacts of acute respiratory infections. Researchers found that symptoms can persist for weeks after those infections ― even with viruses we’re more used to, like those for the cold or flu.
“Where long COVID has defined risk factors, there is a paucity of data to inform us as to which people are at risk for developing a long cold,” said Dr. John Swartzberg, clinical professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health.
That’s where the results of the recent study can be useful. We spoke to experts to identify the telltale factors associated with a long cold. Here’s what it may look like:
Your cold symptoms are more severe than normal.
In the study, researchers found that the severity of an illness appears to be a key driver of risk for long-term symptoms.
According to Dr. Adaira Landry, an emergency medicine physician and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, some of the severe cold symptoms that could be present include persistent fevers, sudden onset headaches, lightheadedness, nausea, persistent visual changes and facial tenderness. Symptoms like cough or congestion can become concerning if they’re associated with significant chest pain, blood or shortness of breath, she added.
In addition to coughing, the study researchers found that some of the most common symptoms of long colds also included stomach pain and diarrhea.
The findings showed that those recovering from COVID-19 were more likely to experience lightheadedness, dizziness or problems with taste and smell compared with those who had a non-COVID respiratory infection.
If you experience any of these severe symptoms, then it is important to seek medical attention immediately. Your provider will be able to order tests for other illnesses (if you haven’t been tested already) and conduct a physical exam to understand how severe your symptoms are.
“The treatment consists of making certain there’s nothing else going on that could cause these symptoms,” Swartzberg said.
Your cold symptoms persist for weeks.
Most viral colds resolve within three to seven days, Landry said. In the study, those with long colds saw their symptoms persist for four weeks or more following an infection.
If you are still experiencing symptoms after a few weeks, you can check in with your provider for further guidance.
“Patients experiencing worsening fevers, or persistent mild symptoms that are not resolving, should call their primary care provider first to see if they have same-day visits,” Landry said.
It is totally normal for a cough or runny nose to last for a few weeks, even though the rest of your symptoms may have resolved.
“A classic example is after a bout with influenza, people often have congestion and cough for weeks, sometimes longer,” Swartzberg said.
There are ways to manage your long cold.
The study researchers stressed that more data needs to be collected to get a firmer grasp on why some people experience prolonged symptoms compared with others.
Generally, longer colds can be resolved over time with symptom management. This includes behaviors like resting, hydrating and using over-the-counter medications for congestion, Landry said.
While there’s no way to prevent long colds specifically, getting an annual flu shot is a great first step to lower your risk of contracting the flu. You should also wash your hands frequently, wear a mask in crowded places, and stay home if you’re sick so you can prevent the spread of illness.
By making sure you prioritize healthy habits, you’ll have the best chance of staying cold-free during the rough winter season.