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Complications of the Common Cold

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Sore Throat and Tonsillitis

Sore throats are common when you have a cold. With a sore throat, it can be hard to swallow and eating may be uncomfortable. While a sore throat with a cold is usually caused by a virus, strep throat is a common bacterial infection caused by the streptococcus bacteria. Tonsillitis, which is also painful, is caused by either a virus or bacterium (usually Streptococcus pyogenes). Call your doctor if your sore throat is not getting better or is very painful.

For in-depth information, see WebMD’s article on Sore Throat: Cold, Strep Throat, or Tonsillitis?

Colds and Ear Infections

Ear infections are another common cold complication. Viruses cause up to 80% of ear infections, and antibiotics have no effect on these. For the bacterial-related infections, the culprit is usually the Streptococcus bacteria, which causes more than 7 million cases of ear infection each year in the U.S. With an ear infection, you may have ear pain, difficulty sleeping, trouble hearing, fever, or ear drainage.

For in-depth information, see WebMD's article on Earache: Cold or Ear Infection?

Colds and Chronic Medical Conditions

If you have a chronic illness such as asthma, heart disease, diabetes, emphysema, or HIV/AIDS, catching a cold can lead to a more serious health problem. That’s why it’s important to know the prevention and treatment steps to take before you come down with cold symptoms.

For in-depth information, see WebMD’s Colds and Chronic Medical Conditions.

When to Call the Doctor About Common Cold Complications

If you or your child has any of the following symptoms, seek care from your doctor:

  • Earache
  • Pain in the sinuses (pain around the nose and eyes) for more than a week
  • Fever above 102 degrees Fahrenheit. If your child is younger than 3 months (12 weeks) and has a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, call your doctor right away. 
  • Fever that lasts more than one day in a child under 2 or more than three days in a child age 2 or older

  • Cough that produces phlegm for more than a week
  • Shortness of breath
  • Worsening symptoms
  • Cold symptoms that last longer than two weeks

If you develop one of these common cold complications, you may need antibiotics or other medicines to treat it. 

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WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on June 08, 2012
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