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Common Winter Illnesses: Know the Signs and Symptoms

Getting sick is more common once temperatures start to dip. Symptoms can creep in during the fall and fully develop come winter. It’s valuable to know which illnesses are preventable, what’s manageable on your own and what needs medical attention. It’s also important to know the differences between each so you don’t confuse anything with symptoms of COVID-19. 

Be proactive this year by brushing up on these common winter illnesses and their symptoms. 


Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room: COVID-19. The coronavirus affects people in different ways, displaying a wide range of symptoms that go from mild to severe. The most common symptoms are fever, cough, fatigue, sore throat and loss of taste or smell. 

Of course, several of those symptoms are similar to the common cold. This is why, if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to be tested to confirm what’s making you feel sick.  

Common cold

Practically everyone has caught the common cold at some point in their lives. And have probably sought out chicken noodle soup as a result. 

This virus spreads from person to person through the air and close contact. Symptoms include sneezing, coughing, sore throat and fever. Symptoms can last for up to ten to 14 days, but you should feel better over time. An important distinction between the cold and COVID-19 is that cold symptoms do not include the loss of taste or smell.


A chest cold, also known as acute bronchitis, is a bit more serious of a condition. This illness occurs when the lung’s airways swell and produce mucus. That’s what makes you cough! Bronchitis can last up to three weeks, and symptoms can include coughing, soreness of the chest, feeling tired and body aches.

For both the common cold and acute bronchitis, it is vital to seek medical care if your body temperature is above 100.4 F, you have trouble breathing or have repeated episodes. 

Ear infection

Ear infections are often a result of another illness, like the ones we’ve already discussed. These infections occur when a bacteria or virus get caught in the middle ear. This causes fluid to build up in the nasal passage, which leads to congestion and swelling. 

Symptoms can include difficulty hearing, pain inside the ear and a fever. When it comes to ear infections, medical care is encouraged. Often, antibiotics are needed to treat severe cases. Seek medical advice for ear pain that lasts longer than two to three days.


Influenza (i.e., the flu) is a respiratory illness that spreads from person to person. Flu season runs in almost perfect parallel with fall and winter before sputtering out once the weather gets nicer. Symptoms can include fever, cough, body aches, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, headache, chills, fatigue or vomiting. Most people who get the flu will recover in a few days to two weeks. However, in more severe cases, some people develop complications, such as pneumonia, as a result.

People who are at high risk of developing the flu are young children, pregnant women and adults 65 years and older. If you are a part of this group and develop symptoms, contact your doctor right away. Something that makes the flu all the more serious is that antibiotics will not help. Be proactive by getting a flu-shot.

Sinus infection

Have a stuffy nose that just isn’t getting better? It may not be a symptom of common winter illness, but rather, a sinus infection. 

Sinus infections happen when fluids build up in the air-filled pockets in the face, which allows germs to get settled in and grow. Factors that increase your risk for sinus infection include having had a cold previously, seasonal allergies or a weak immune system. Symptoms often include runny or stuffy nose, facial pain, sore throat, cough and post-nasal drip. You don’t need antibiotics for many sinus infections, but your doctor can make that decision based on the severity of your situation. 

Shown in these examples, it’s easy to see how the winter brings a bunch of potential illnesses our way. The good news is that as long as we take the necessary precautions, most of these sicknesses pose minimal threat to our health.

Stay safe and stay healthy this season.  

For more information on winter illnesses, please visit cdc.gov.