Complications of the Common Cold

Written by the Healthline Editorial Team | Published on September 10, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Kenneth R. Hirsch, MD on September 10, 2014

The Common Cold and Complications

A cold usually goes away on its own and doesn’t warrant a visit to the doctor. However, sometimes it develops into a health complication like bronchitis, pneumonia, an ear infection, sinusitis, or an asthma attack.

Complications most commonly occur in young children, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems. These individuals especially should monitor their cold symptoms and call their doctor at the first sign of complication.

If cold symptoms last longer than 10 days or if they continue to worsen, you may have a secondary complication. In such cases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you call your doctor.

Cold-Related Medical Complications and Outlook

Acute Ear Infection (Otitis Media)

Ear infection is a frequent complication of the common cold in children. A cold can cause fluid buildup and congestion behind the eardrum. When bacteria or the cold virus infiltrates the usually air-filled space behind the eardrum, the result is an ear infection. This typically causes an extremely painful earache. A very young child who cannot verbalize what they are going through may cry or sleep poorly. A child with an ear infection may also have a green or yellow nasal discharge, and sometimes a recurrence of a fever after a common cold.

Oftentimes ear infections will clear up within one to two weeks. Simple treatments such as warm compresses, over-the-counter acetaminophen or ibuprofen, and prescription eardrops may be all that it takes to alleviate symptoms. In some cases, doctors may want to prescribe antibiotics. In a small number of cases, ear-tube surgery to drain the ear’s fluids may be necessary.

If your child has symptoms of an ear infection, call your doctor.

Asthma Attack

According to the Mayo Clinic, a cold is one of the most common triggers of asthma attacks, especially in young children. Asthma’s symptoms, such as wheezing or chest tightness, may worsen in those with a cold. Cold symptoms may also last longer in those with asthma.

If you have asthma and contract a cold, the Mayo Clinic recommends the following steps: 

  • Monitor your airflow with your peak flow meter at the same time each day and adjust your asthma medications accordingly.
  • Pull out your asthma action plan, which details what to do if symptoms worsen. If you do not have one, talk to your doctor about how to create one.
  • Rest as much as possible and drink plenty of fluids.
  • If asthma symptoms worsen, adjust your medicine accordingly and call your doctor.
  • Seek medical help immediately if breathing becomes extremely difficult, your throat is severely sore, or if you have pneumonia symptoms (high fever, chills, sweats, a sharp pain when you take a deep breath, or a cough that is accompanied by colored mucus).

The key to preventing a cold-related asthma attack is knowing how to manage your asthma during an illness and seeking treatment early when symptoms flare up.

Sinusitis

Sinusitis is an infection of the sinuses and nasal passages that is marked by facial pain, bad headaches, fever, cough, sore throat, loss of taste and smell, a feeling of fullness in the ears, and occasionally bad breath.

Sinusitis can develop when a common cold persists and blocks your sinuses (the four pairs of hollow spaces in the bones that surround your nose). Blocked sinuses trap bacteria or viruses in the nasal mucus. This causes sinus infection and inflammation.

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, acute sinusitis can last for up to eight weeks but is usually curable. Your doctor may suggest over-the-counter pain relievers, decongestants, and sometimes they may prescribe antibiotics. Inhaling steam can also bring relief. Pour boiling water into a bowl or pan, bend over it with a towel over your head, and inhale the steam. A hot shower and saline nasal sprays may also help.

If you are having sinusitis symptoms or if cold symptoms persist beyond 10 days, contact your doctor. Although rare, serious complications may arise if sinusitis is left untreated.

Strep Throat (Streptococcal Pharyngitis)

Sometimes those with a cold may also acquire strep throat. Strep throat is more common in children from young school age to teenage years (five to 15), but adults can have the condition as well.

Strep throat is caused by streptococcal bacteria that spread in the same way a cold does. You can get it from touching an infected person or surface, from airborne particles when a person coughs or sneezes, or from sharing infected items with an infected person.

Its symptoms include:

  • a painful throat
  • difficulty swallowing
  • swollen, red tonsils (sometimes with white spots or pus)
  • small, red dots on the roof of your mouth
  • tender and swollen lymph nodes in the neck
  • fever
  • headache
  • exhaustion
  • rash
  • pain in the stomach and/or vomiting (more common in young children)

Strep throat is usually treated with antibiotics in addition to over-the-counter pain medications like ibuprofen and acetaminophen to relieve pain symptoms. Once antibiotics are started, most people start to feel better within 48 hours. It’s important to take the entire antibiotic treatment, however, even if you are feeling better. Stopping the antibiotic midcourse may lead to a recurrence of symptoms or even serious complications like kidney disease or rheumatic fever.

Pneumonia

This complication can be especially dangerous and sometimes deadly for people in high-risk groups. These groups include the young, the elderly, and those with existing conditions. Therefore, it’s important to see your doctor at the first sign of pneumonia symptoms.  

With this complication, the lungs become inflamed. This causes symptoms of cough, fever, shaking, chills, and other side effects.

Seek medical treatment immediately if you have any of the following pneumonia symptoms:

  • severe cough with large amounts of mucus
  • shortness of breath
  • persistent fever higher than 102 F
  • sharp chest pains
  • severe chills or sweating

Pneumonia is usually very responsive to treatment with antibiotics and supportive therapy. However, smokers, older adults, and people with heart or lung problems are especially prone to complications associated with this condition. According to the Mayo Clinic, these groups should monitor their cold symptoms closely and seek medical care at the first sign of pneumonia.

Bronchitis

This complication is an irritation of the mucous membranes of the bronchi in the lungs.

Symptoms of bronchitis include cough (often with mucus), chest tightness, fatigue, and a mild fever and chills.

Most often, simple remedies like rest, drinking plenty of fluids, using a humidifier, and taking over-the-counter pain medications are all that’s needed to treat this complication.

However, contact your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • a cough that lasts longer than three weeks
  • a cough that interrupts your sleep
  • a cough combined with fever over 100.4 F
  • a cough that produces blood
  • a cough combined with wheezing or difficulty breathing

More serious conditions like pneumonia can develop from untreated, chronic bronchitis.

Bronchiolitis

Bronchiolitis is an inflammatory condition of the smallest airways in the lungs (bronchioles). This is a common but sometimes severe infection that is most commonly due to respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Bronchiolitis usually affects children under 2 years of age. Its symptoms are similar to that of a common cold in its first few days, including runny or stuffy nose and sometimes fever. Then, wheezing, a quick heartbeat, or difficult breathing may occur.

In healthy infants, this condition typically goes away within one to two weeks. Bronchiolitis may require medical attention in premature infants or in those with other medical conditions.

All parents should seek immediate medical care if their child has any of the following symptoms:

  • extremely fast and shallow breathing (more than 40 breaths per minute)
  • blue skin, especially when around the lips and fingernails
  • needing to sit up in order to breathe
  • difficulty eating or drinking due to effort of breathing
  • wheezing sounds that are audible

Croup

Croup is a condition characterized by its harsh cough similar to that of a barking seal.  Other symptoms include fever and a hoarse voice.

Croup can often be treated at home, but you should talk to your child’s pediatrician if he or she shows signs of the condition. The Mayo Clinic recommends seeking immediate medical care if your child has any of the following symptoms:

  • loud and high-pitched breathing sounds when he or she inhales
  • trouble swallowing and excessive drooling
  • extreme irritability
  • difficulty breathing
  • blue or gray skin around the nose, mouth, or fingernails
  • a fever of 103.5 F (39.7 C) or higher

The Common Cold and Lifestyle Disruption

Sleep Disruption

Sleep is often affected by the common cold. Symptoms like a runny nose, nasal congestion, or a cough are often very uncomfortable and can make it hard to breathe. This can keep you from getting enough sleep to function properly during the day.

A number of over-the-counter cold medications may help relieve symptoms and help you get the rest you need to fully recover. Ask your doctor for help in choosing the right type for your needs.

Physical Difficulties

Physical activity can also be difficult if you have a cold. Vigorous exercise can be especially challenging with nasal congestion making breathing difficult. Stick to gentle forms of exercise like walking so you can stay active without overexerting yourself.

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Article Sources:

·         Asthma: Limit asthma attacks caused by cold or flu. (2011, November 22). Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/asthma/AS00024 

·         Bronchiolitis. (2010, September 25). Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/bronchiolitis/DS00481

·         Get smart: Know when antibiotics work: Common cold and runny nose. (2012, May 1). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/getsmart/antibiotic-use/uri/colds.html#d

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