A cold usually goes away without treatment or a trip to the doctor. However, sometimes a cold can develop into a health complication such as bronchitis or strep throat.
Young children, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems are most likely to experience complications. They should monitor their cold symptoms carefully and call their doctor at the first sign of a complication.
If cold symptoms last longer than 10 days or if they continue to worsen, you may have a secondary issue. In these cases, you should call your doctor.
infection (otitis media)
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.
Ear infection is a frequent complication of the common cold in children. A very young child who can’t verbalize what they feel may cry or sleep poorly. A child with an ear infection may also have green or yellow nasal discharge or a recurrence of a fever after a common cold.
Often, ear infections clear up within one to two weeks. Sometimes, all it takes to alleviate symptoms may be these simple treatments:
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.
Call your doctor if your child has symptoms of an ear infection.
A cold is one of the most common triggers of asthma attacks, especially in young children. Cold symptoms may last longer in people with asthma. Asthma symptoms, such as wheezing or chest tightness, may also worsen during a cold.
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.
- Check your asthma action plan, which details what to do if symptoms get worse. If you don’t have one of these plans, talk to your doctor about how to create one.
- Rest as much as possible and drink plenty of fluids.
- If your asthma symptoms get worse, adjust your medication accordingly and call your doctor.
The keys to preventing a cold-related asthma attack is knowing how to manage your asthma during an illness and seeking treatment early when symptoms do flare up.
Seek medical help immediately if:
- your breathing becomes extremely difficult
- your throat is severely sore
- you have symptoms of pneumonia
Sinusitis is an infection of the sinuses and nasal passages. It’s marked by:
- facial pain
- bad headaches
- sore throat
- loss of taste and smell
- a feeling of fullness in the ears
On occasion, it can also cause bad breath.
Sinusitis can develop when a common cold persists and blocks your sinuses. Blocked sinuses trap bacteria or viruses in the nasal mucus. This causes sinus infection and inflammation.
Acute sinusitis can last for up to twelve weeks, but it’s usually curable. Your doctor may suggest over-the-counter pain relievers, decongestants, and possibly antibiotics. Inhaling steam can also bring relief. To do this, pour boiling water into a bowl or pan, then 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’re having sinusitis symptoms or if your cold symptoms persist for longer than 10 days, contact your doctor. Serious complications may arise if sinusitis is left untreated, though this is rare.
Sometimes people with a cold may also get strep throat. Strep throat is most common in children between the ages of 5 and 15 years, but adults can get strep, too.
Strep throat is caused by streptococcal bacteria. You can get it from touching an infected person or surface, breathing airborne particles released when a person coughs or sneezes, or sharing items with an infected person.
Symptoms of strep throat include:
- a painful throat
- difficulty swallowing
- swollen, red tonsils (sometimes with white spots or pus)
- small, red dots on the roof of the mouth
- tender and swollen lymph nodes in the neck
- stomach pain or vomiting (more common in young children)
Strep throat is usually treated with a combination of antibiotics and over-the-counter pain medications like acetaminophen and ibuprofen. Most people start feeling better within 48 hours of starting antibiotics. It’s important to take the entire course of antibiotics even if you do feel better. Stopping the antibiotic mid-course may lead to a recurrence of symptoms or even serious complications such as kidney disease or rheumatic fever.
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
- mild fever
Most often, simple remedies are all that’s needed to treat this complication.
- Get proper rest.
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Use a humidifier.
- Take over-the-counter pain medications.
However, you should contact your doctor if you have a cough that:
- lasts longer than three weeks
- interrupts your sleep
- produces blood
- is combined with fever greater than 100.4°F (38°C)
- is combined with wheezing or difficulty breathing
More serious conditions such as pneumonia can develop from untreated, chronic bronchitis.
Pneumonia can be especially dangerous and sometimes deadly for people in high-risk groups. These groups include young children, older adults, and people with existing conditions. Therefore, people in these groups should see their doctor at the first sign of pneumonia symptoms.
With pneumonia, the lungs become inflamed. This causes symptoms such as cough, fever, and shaking.
Seek medical treatment immediately if you have any of the following pneumonia symptoms:
- severe cough with large amounts of colored mucus
- shortness of breath
- persistent fever greater than 102°F (38.9°C)
- sharp pain when you take a deep breath
- 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 from pneumonia. These groups should monitor their cold symptoms closely and seek medical care at the first sign of pneumonia.
Bronchiolitis is an inflammatory condition of the bronchioles (the smallest airways in the lungs). It’s a common but sometimes severe infection typically caused by the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Bronchiolitis usually affects children younger than 2 years of age. In its first few days, its symptoms are similar to that of a common cold and include runny or stuffy nose and sometimes fever. Afterward, wheezing, a quick heartbeat, or difficult breathing may occur.
In healthy infants, this condition typically does not require treatment and goes away within one to two weeks. Bronchiolitis may require medical attention in premature infants or those with other medical conditions.
All parents should seek immediate medical care if their child has any of the following symptoms:
- extremely fast, shallow breathing (more than 40 breaths per minute)
- blue skin, especially around the lips and fingernails
- needing to sit up in order to breathe
- difficulty eating or drinking due to the effort of breathing
- audible wheezing
Croup is a condition mostly seen in young children. It’s characterized by a harsh cough that sounds similar to a barking seal. Other symptoms include fever and a hoarse voice.
Croup can often be treated with over-the-counter pain relievers, but you should still talk to your child’s pediatrician if your child shows signs of croup. Seek immediate medical care if your child has any of the following symptoms:
- loud and high-pitched breathing sounds when they inhale
- trouble swallowing
- 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
cold and lifestyle disruption
Sleep is often affected by the common cold. Symptoms such as a runny nose, nasal congestion, and cough 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. This can also help you get the rest you need to fully recover. Ask your doctor for help in choosing the right type for your needs.
Physical activity can also be difficult if you have a cold. Vigorous exercise can be especially challenging because nasal congestion makes breathing difficult. Stick to gentle forms of exercise, such as walking, so you can stay active without overexerting yourself.
Pay close attention to your cold symptoms, especially if you’re part of a high-risk group. Contact your doctor if your symptoms last for longer than normal or if you begin having new, more unusual symptoms. Early diagnosis is crucial to managing potential complications.