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

Updated: Apr. 18, 2024

If your cold symptoms won't quit, you may have something else. Doctors explain what it could mean if you've got a lingering "cold."

Cold comfort

There’s a reason it’s called the common cold: Adults can expect to get two to three colds each year with children experiencing even more, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—colds are the number one reason adults miss work and kids miss school. We probably don’t even have to tell you what the symptoms are but a sore throat and runny nose are usually the first signs, followed by coughing and sneezing, the CDC reports. However, while most people recover in about seven to 10 days, sometimes colds can linger and linger and… well, eventually you start to wonder if you’re going to spend the rest of your life wiping your nose. There are some real reasons your cold is lingering:

Young ill man in bed at home
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You might still have a cold

The first cause of a lingering cold, according to Satesh Bidaisee, a professor of public health and preventive medicine at St. George’s University, is that you may just still have 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 beyond two weeks is considered lingering.” These 13 household items raise your risk for cold and flu.

Sick african american girl with flu in bedroom at home. Ill young black woman with cold, lying in bed and holding a thermometer in her mouth.
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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 Sc`ott, MD, a physician at the Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, California, adding that this is often the case with children. Learn the difference between the cold and flu.

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

It’s might be a side effect of your medication

Coughs are often the last symptom to go away from a cold but if yours just won’t quit, it may be due to your medications, says 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.” (Read how this man’s “cold” turned out to be a heart attack.)

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You might have chronic postnasal drainage

If you have a productive cough with clear or white phlegm that persists, says Dr. Arthur, it may be due to chronic postnasal 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. Post-nasal drainage is a common after-effect of the cold and can also be caused by allergies, weather changes, and other external factors, she says. Here are 7 reasons why you always feel stuffed up.

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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, says Dr. Scott. “Depending on the season, allergic symptoms can last much longer and are often accompanied by itchy, watery eyes,” he explains. “Tree pollen can often be high in the winter so symptoms of allergies can be at the same time as the ‘cold season.'”

Senior Woman Blowing Nose With Tissue At Home. Sick mature woman catch cold. Sneezing with handkerchief, coughing, got flu, having runny nose. I need some immune system support
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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, causing a sinus infection.” It most often occurs between ten to 14 days after the onset of a cold and requires a prescription from a doctor to clear up. Check out these clear signs you have a sinus infection.

Person inhaling medication from a pressurized cartridge inhaler
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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 pulmonary disease) might be the cause. Typically asthma shows up earlier in life but it is possible to be diagnosed as an adult, she says. COPD typically presents in older people, particularly those who were smokers, she adds. Your doctor may order a lung test for an accurate diagnosis, and treatment can begin with various types of inhalers.

X-Ray Image Of Human Chest for a medical diagnosis.Chest and lungs Xray photo

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. Check out the 7 signs that your upper respiratory infection is actually pneumonia.

cropped shot of man suffering from stomach pain in bed
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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. Reflux is quite common, affecting about 20 percent of American adults and that number is only rising, according to the National Institutes of Health. “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.”

Doctor exams Asian newborn baby with stethoscope in the hospital

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 tuberculosis is much rarer these days, cases still occur. “This infection is very contagious, so if you have a weakened immune system, have been traveling 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 and 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, explains Dr. Bidaisee. Dietary insufficiency, inadequate sleep, dehydration, stress, genetic conditions, certain medications, and systemic viral infections such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) can reduce the body’s ability to resolve a cold. “Immunocompromised conditions require supportive treatment such as dietary supplementation, rest, fluids, stress management, and antimicrobial therapy,” says Dr. Bidaisee. Check out these 12 simple ways to boost your immune system.

Three IV's hand on a stand in a hospital room

It’s rare, but 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, find out more signs your common cold could be something worse.