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.
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.
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
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
- 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
- If asthma symptoms worsen, adjust your
medicine accordingly and call your doctor.
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 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.
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
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
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
- pain in the stomach
and/or vomiting (more common in young children)
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.
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.
medical treatment immediately if you have any of the following pneumonia
- 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.
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.
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 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
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
- needing to sit up in order to breathe
- difficulty eating or drinking due to effort
- wheezing sounds that are audible
Croup is a condition characterized
by its harsh cough similar to that of a barking seal. Other symptoms include fever and a hoarse
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,
- a fever of 103.5 F (39.7 C) or higher
The Common Cold and Lifestyle 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 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.