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Complications of the Common Cold

Often, symptoms of the common cold are no more than irritating. But, sometimes the common cold can lead to a more serious infection, such as sinusitis, bronchitis, or ear infection, and require antibiotics or other medications to get well.

While it’s important to understand how to treat a common cold, it’s also important to know the signs of more serious common cold complications.

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Illnesses That Can Result From a Cold

Usually, normal common cold symptoms don’t need to be checked out by your doctor. Symptoms such as a runny nose, sore throat, and fatigue generally go away on their own. If you have severe body aches or a fever over 102 degrees Fahrenheit, you may have the flu. It’s a good idea to check with your doctor if you have flu symptoms. Medications may be able to shorten the duration of flu symptoms if started soon after symptoms appear.

But sometimes, colds can lead to other, more serious medical complications, including:

  • Sinus infections (sinusitis)
  • Asthma attacks
  • Bronchitis (chest cold)
  • Ear infections

In addition, if you have a health condition such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, or emphysema, you might experience several weeks of respiratory symptoms long after the cold is over. Let’s look at some of the common cold complications that occur.

Colds and Sinus Infections (Sinusitis)

A sinus infection is an inflammation of the mucus membranes that line the sinus cavities. This inflammation causes the mucus glands in the sinuses to secrete more mucus. When the passages in your sinuses become blocked, pressure develops and your nose may feel plugged. If your cold lingers for more than a week and you begin to have pain in the sinus area, headache, upper tooth pain, nasal obstruction, cough, thick yellow or green nasal drainage, call your doctor. You may have a sinus infection.

For in-depth information, see WebMD's article on When a Cold Becomes a Sinus Infection.

Colds and Asthma Attacks

If you have asthma, a cold can make you feel congested and make you cough as you try to expel mucus from the throat or lungs. You might have a dry cough and wheeze initially with an asthma attack. Then you may experience feelings of breathlessness, chest tightness, and coughing. If you notice a worsening of your asthma symptoms, follow your asthma action plan. If you continue to get worse, call your doctor or get medical treatment immediately.

For in-depth information, see WebMD's article on Asthma and Colds.

Colds and Bronchitis (Chest Cold)

Acute bronchitis (also called a chest cold) is an inflammation and irritation of the airways caused by a bacterial or viral infection. With bronchitis, you may have a cough with production of mucus, which may be thick and yellow or occasionally blood streaked. Most people recover without medical treatment. If these symptoms persist for more than a week or you develop shortness of breath, call your doctor or get medical treatment immediately. Also call your doctor if you have chronic lung problems or asthma and you have any of these symptoms.

For in-depth information, see WebMD's article on When a Cold Becomes Bronchitis.

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