When you woke up this morning with a mild fever, cough, and sore throat, you thought you might be coming down with a cold. But instead of developing a stuffy or runny nose as the day went on, your muscles started feeling achy and you began having chills. Before you knew what hit you, you were feeling exhausted, shaky, and absolutely awful — and ready to climb straight into bed for a week.

Here at Emergency Care in Houston, we treat a lot of patients with upper respiratory infections, ranging from the common cold to influenza and pneumonia. Some of the patients we see come to our office believing they have a bad cold or the flu, only to find out that they actually have something more serious: pneumonia.

Read on to discover how to differentiate between the flu and pneumonia, and why it’s important to seek a proper diagnosis, no matter which illness you think you have.

Common flu symptoms

The first thing you need to know about the flu is that it comes on suddenly and often comes on strong. While many flu patients develop a fever that lasts three or four days, it’s important to note that not everyone who gets the flu develops a fever.

Many flu patients feel extremely tired; in fact, exhaustion is one of the telltale signs that help doctors differentiate the flu from a bad cold. With the flu, fatigue typically starts early and lasts two or three weeks.

Other symptoms that the majority of flu patients share include chills, headaches, muscle or body aches, and a dry, hacking cough, usually accompanied by chest pain, which can be severe. Headaches are also common.

Although you it’s possible to have sneezing, a stuffy or runny nose, and a sore throat with the flu, these symptoms are less usual.

Common pneumonia symptoms

The first thing you need to know about pneumonia is that it’s often a complication of the flu. This happens when the flu virus causes inflammation in the air sacs of your lungs, causing them to fill with liquid and pus.

Although pneumonia comes on more gradually (unlike the flu, which is sudden), it can be difficult to notice this gradual onset of symptoms if you’ve been sick with the flu for a few days or longer. If you have the flu and you suddenly feel worse, however, you may have developed pneumonia.

Whether you have the flu or not, the trademark symptom of pneumonia that almost everyone experiences is a fever that rises rapidly. The majority of pneumonia patients also have a persistent, moist cough that may generate rust-colored pus; it’s typically accompanied by some amount of chest pain or discomfort.  

Other, less common pneumonia symptoms include fatigue and muscle or body aches. Most pneumonia patients don’t experience headaches, a sore throat, or a stuffy or runny nose.

The importance of proper diagnosis

If you suddenly feel achy, tired, or have any other symptoms that lead you to suspect the flu, it’s important to seek a proper diagnosis as soon as possible.

That’s because if you’re diagnosed with the flu soon after the onset of symptoms, you can take antiviral medication to make your illness milder or shorter. More importantly, antiviral flu medications can also help protect against serious complications like pneumonia.

In fact, for people who are at high risk of complications — including young children, pregnant women, adults over the age of 65, and people with chronic health conditions like asthma and diabetes — these medications may mean only a mild illness instead of a hospitalization.

Antiviral flu medications work best when they’re started no more than two days after the onset of symptoms.

If you’re diagnosed with pneumonia, you’ll find out what type you have (bacterial or viral) and receive the appropriate treatment. Bacterial pneumonia requires antibiotics, while viral pneumonia may be helped by an antiviral medication.

If you have severe pneumonia symptoms, including shortness of breath, you may need to be admitted to the hospital.

Here at River Oaks ER in Houston, we’re ready and available to help you 24/7. Stop in anytime without an appointment, or if you prefer, call our office to schedule an appointment or use our convenient online booking tool.