It seems like everyone gets a cold every now and then and they are hard to avoid. A cold can make anyone feel miserable, but a cold with chronic illness can be exceptionally difficult to deal with. When you already live with an assortment of symptoms, adding a cold on top of that can just become too much, especially when it interacts with your chronic illness symptoms.
David M. Brady, N.D., author of “The Fibro-Fix” and director of the Human Nutrition Institute told The Mighty people with chronic conditions are more prone to have exaggerated cold symptoms. “Basically, they will often suffer the same overt symptoms as anyone else, but these may be more severe and last longer than in a person without chronic illness,” he said. It’s not new or different symptoms; it’s how those symptoms affect you.
But why does this happen? Brady pointed out there are a few different reasons a cold and chronic illness are not a good mix. He told The Mighty:
Those with chronic illness often have a suppressed and imbalanced immune system, especially if they may be suffering from an autoimmune or inflammatory disease or disorder. They are also commonly on immune-suppressing medications, including corticosteroids and immune response modifiers. This makes them more susceptible to infections. It basically becomes easier for them to catch a cold. Finally, people with chronic illness often have much less robust global health due to fatigue, inability to exercise and maintain a higher level of fitness and resilience.
Not everyone realizes how difficult the experience can be when you catch a cold when you’re already chronically ill. Because of this, it might be difficult for the people in your life to sympathize with you. You might also feel alone in your experiences. That’s why we asked our chronic illness community for their perspective. We wanted to better understand what having a cold really feels like.
Here’s what our community had to say:
1. A cold sucks up what little energy you have left.
“I feel like I’m going to collapse and that I’m just walking through a dream the entire time. I can’t think, my body [becomes] so stressed from the fighting that all my energy is gone.” – Tierra N.
2. A cold can turn into something worse.
“Recovering from a cold takes exponentially longer for me. I once had the beginnings of a cold in mid-December. It developed into an upper respiratory infection. Doctor put me on antibiotics two days before Christmas. I was finally well by St. Patrick’s Day.” – Cyn R.
“It can take weeks for me to get over [one]. A lot of times, it gets out of control and a simple cold can go to full pneumonia or pleurisy in a couple days. I have to be very careful. So does my husband. He has more exposure to people with colds and flu from his work. He tries not to bring anything home to me.” – Lyndsey M.
“My colds last a minimum of three weeks and almost always end with the beginning of a sinus infection that then also lasts three weeks. Sometimes I get a cold, flu and sinus infection all in a neat little row.” – @emme-andrews
3. You have to err on the side of caution.
“People think I’m overreacting when I go to the doctor as soon as I get sick. But if I wait, it will get so much worse really fast.” – Kathy T.
“I’m deathly afraid to get a cold. I am severely immunocompromised due to being on methotrexate and Simponi Aria (an immunosuppressant biologic). My rheumatologist warned me that getting anything like a cold could lead to serious infection and I have to go onto antibiotics if I feel anything coming on. Having chronic illness makes getting a short-term illness scary and so unknown on worse things that could happen.” – @rapidreader
4. A cold can cause flare-ups.
“Having a cold always causes a flare up in my illnesses. It’s a balancing act. Last time I got sick, I was in awful pain all over because it triggered my fibromyalgia. Even just the shirt on my back will cause pain. Don’t get me started on the fatigue and rapid heart rate!” – Natalie L.
“I have fibromyalgia, which is like having the flu all the time. I’m already easily fatigued, have digestion problems, pain, etc. If I have a cold on top of all of that, it just makes my symptoms exponentially worse. I’m often bed ridden if I get sick.” – Alex P.
“With chronic pain, every symptom seems magnified. My body hurts more. Every time I cough, my neck hurts more and more. It’s just something else to deal with on top of everything else.” – Liz T.
5. You worry about catching a cold from someone else.
“Absolutely terrified if anyone approaches me with a cold. They have to leave! It’s just too much as it makes my fibro [go] off the bloody chart.” – Kaye L.
6. You become overwhelmed.
“Having a cold with a chronic illness is torture. I usually break down emotionally because I’m no longer able to function with a cold. I’m so miserable without the cold that it’s hard to deal with illness on top of my regular issues. The first week and a half is spent in bed. If I get up too soon or start leaving the house too soon, the cold will get worse again and come back with a vengeance. It takes me around a month to recover and get back to normal.” – Becky P.
7. You can almost predict when you’ll get a cold.
“Every year for the last decade, I’m usually sick from October through January. I had a cold recently. I just deal with basics, rest, fluids and don’t try to do much if possible.” – @santopaz
8. Your world comes to a standstill.
“I’ve been in bed since Monday night. I can barely stay standing for over five minutes. When I cough, my back feels like I could snap in half and I just want it to be over. I’ve done no housework and my kids have been so bored. I feel so bad for not being able to function at least semi normally. I hate it so much.” – Maureen D.
9. You’re not sure if it’s a cold.
“I never know I’ve had a cold until I’ve passed it to someone else in the house. It just feels like the beginning of a flare. Sinus pressure, sinus bleeding, fever, chills, overheating, lethargic, dizzy, difficulty breathing, vitals going up and down.” – Hannah E.
“My symptoms are constantly changing. I’m convinced my different autoimmune diseases take turns tormenting me and each day seems to bring something new. So, I don’t know if I’d even realize if I caught a cold!” – @justagurlfromtexas
10. The cold sticks around for awhile.
“What other people don’t always understand is that because I’m immunosuppressed, I will catch a cold twice as fast and it will last twice as long because I can’t fight it off. Then I will end up with a disease flare-up that will last anywhere from two weeks to two years. So a two-week cold for some people can be a two-year process for me. It is up to us, those with chronic illness, to protect ourselves and educate others.” – Patricia G.
“What takes someone three to five days to get over takes me three to five weeks. There’s a lot of phlegm and coughing. I tend to go through at least two boxes of tissues and have to go back and forth between cold medicines because one alone doesn’t work. But I am unfortunately stuck in a situation where people do not realize that my immune system is weaker, so they continue to come around me, or bring people around me, who are sick.” – Kaitlynn A.
“[A cold] has nine lives and wants to move in and take up residence in my body. I just rest and fight until I recover.” – @little_mystery
If you’re worried about getting a cold, Brady pointed to the importance of being mindful when you live with chronic illness. How you take care of your body after a cold and taking care of yourself to prevent a cold are similar practices: Rest, staying hydrated and eat a quality diet are just a few ways to take care of yourself before, during and after a cold.
For more insight on what it’s like to catch a cold with chronic illness, read these stories from our Mighty community:
- Why Simple Illnesses Are Harder to Fight When You’re Chronically Ill
- Why Getting Sick While You Have a Chronic Condition Is a Big Deal
- 16 Memes That Nail What It’s Like to Get Sick When You Already Have a Chronic Illness
- The Courage It Takes to Get Through Cold and Flu Season as a Spoonie