Nasal congestion, sneezing, a runny nose, and coughing are all classic signs of a cold. The common cold usually goes away on its own. However, in some cases it’s necessary to make an appointment with your doctor or your child’s pediatrician for an evaluation and diagnosis.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends making an appointment with your doctor if cold symptoms:
- linger or worsen after 10 days
- include a fever above 100.4°F
- aren’t helped by over-the-counter medication
Sometimes a common cold can develop into a more serious condition, such as bronchitis or pneumonia. Ear infections are a common complication in children. Complications are more common in infants and children, older adults, and those with weakened immune systems.
To properly diagnose a cold that is severe or persistent, your physician may start with a medical history and physical exam. They will ask you questions about your symptoms, including the specific character of the symptoms and how long you’ve had them. Your doctor also will likely check your lungs, sinuses, throat, and ears.
Your doctor may also take a throat culture, which involves swabbing the back of your throat. This test helps your doctor determine whether a bacterial infection is causing your sore throat. They may also order a blood test or chest X-ray to help rule out other potential causes of your symptoms. A chest X-ray will also show whether your cold has developed into a complication like bronchitis or pneumonia.
In certain cases, such as with a severe ear infection, your doctor may refer you or your child to a specialist such as an otolaryngologist. An otolaryngologist is a physician specially trained in treating the ear, nose, and throat (ENT).
Though there are some lab tests that can detect common viral agents like rhinovirus and respiratory syncytial virus, they are rarely used because the common cold tends to go away before a diagnostic test is necessary.
Sometimes a doctor may order a viral test in the case of cold symptoms, especially in children under 2 years old, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems. These tests commonly involve taking a sample of nasal fluid using a suction instrument or a swab.
Everyone gets the common cold at some point in their life. Most of the time it’s nothing to worry about. Bedrest, home remedies, and over-the-counter medications can help get rid of your cold within a few days. If your cold persists or becomes worse, you should see your doctor so that it doesn’t turn into a more serious condition. It’s especially important to see a doctor if your child is sick, if you’re elderly, or if you have a weakened immune system.