Common Cold Diagnosis

Written by the Healthline Editorial Team | Published on July 30, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Kenneth R. Hirsch, MD on July 30, 2014

Common Cold: Diagnosis

Nasal congestion, sneezing, a runny nose, and coughing are all classic signs of a cold. In most cases, common colds go away on their own, and it isn’t necessary to make an appointment with your doctor or your child’s pediatrician for an evaluation and diagnosis.

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend making an appointment with your doctor if cold symptoms linger or worsen beyond 10 days, if you or your child have a fever over 100.4 F, or if over-the-counter medicines are not helping with symptoms.

Sometimes, the common cold may develop into more serious complications, 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.

Doctor Visit

To properly diagnose a cold that is severe or persistent, your physician may start with a history and physical exam. He or she will ask questions about your symptoms, including their specific character and how long they have lasted. In the exam, your doctor will likely check your lungs, sinuses, throat, and ears.

Your doctor may also take a throat culture, which involves swabbing the back of the throat. This test mainly helps your doctor to determine whether or not a bacterial infection is causing your sore throat. They may also order a blood test or chest X-rays in order to rule out other potential causes of your symptoms or to find out whether your cold has developed into a more serious complication like bronchitis or pneumonia.

They will then recommend treatment options.

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 ears, nose, and throat (ENT).

Though there are some laboratory tests that can detect common viral agents like rhinovirus and respiratory syncytial virus, they are rarely used since the common cold tends to abate before a diagnostic test is necessary. However, sometimes a doctor may order a viral test in the case of cold symptoms, especially in children under two, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems. These tests commonly involve taking a sample of nasal fluid using a suction instrument or sometimes a swab.  

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