Complications of the Common Cold

Medically Reviewed by Whitney Seltman, OD on March 15, 2024
3 min read

You’ve got a cough, your throat’s sore, and your nose is stuffed up. Sounds like a cold, right?

It might be something more than that if you’ve been sniffly for over a week, or if your symptoms seem to be getting worse. Here’s how to get a sense of what might be making you feel under the weather.

These typically last 3 to 10 days. You could have symptoms like:

Try to rest up while the cold runs its course. There's probably no need to call your doctor unless your symptoms are severe or you have other medical problems.

Pick up the phone if you have any of these symptoms. It could mean you have something more than a cold:

  • Fever higher than 102 F with tiredness and body aches
  • Severe vomiting
  • Severe sinus pain in your face or forehead
  • Swollen glands in your neck or jaw

Call 911 for any of these problems:

Sometimes a cold causes swelling in the sinuses or lungs. That can lead to other problems, like these:

Sinus infection (sinusitis): This happens when a cold virus infects your sinuses -- the hollow areas in the bones of your cheeks, forehead, and under your eyes. These areas swell, and your body makes more mucus. It’s a perfect place for bacteria to grow and thrive. You may get a headache, fever, and some or all of these symptoms:

  • A severely stuffed up nose
  • Less sense of smell and taste
  • Thick yellow or green mucus
  • Achy teeth
  • Pain or pressure near your sinuses that gets worse when you bend over
  • A cough that’s worse at night
  • Bad breath

See your doctor if these symptoms are severe, you still feel bad after 7 days, or if you get better and then get worse.

Get emergency medical help right away if you have one or more of these problems. They could be warning signs of something more serious, like meningitis:

  • Fever over 102 F
  • Sudden, severe pain in the face or head
  • Double vision or trouble seeing
  • Confusion or problems thinking clearly
  • Stiff neck
  • Shortness of breath (in cases of severe meningitis)

Bronchitis (a chest cold): You get it when the large tubes that carry air into your lungs become swollen and irritated. Telltale symptoms of this illness can include:

  • A cough that could last 10 to 20 days
  • A cough that produces green, yellow, or clear mucus

Most of the time, you don’t need to see a doctor for bronchitis. But call yours ASAP if you have any of these symptoms -- you could have pneumonia:

  • Fever above 100.4 F
  • A cough that is not better after 7 to 10 days

Get emergency care or call 911 for any of these symptoms:

If you’re over age 75 and have a cough that won’t stop, see your doctor. You could have bronchitis, even if you don’t have any other symptoms.

Ear infection: Colds and sinus infections can keep fluid trapped in your ear behind your eardrum. When this happens, bacteria or viruses can grow and cause an infection.

Warning signs of an ear infection can include:

  • Fullness or pressure in one or both ears
  • Pain in one or both of them
  • Fluid that drains from your ear
  • Muffled hearing

See your doctor right away if you have a high fever or severe pain in your ear. Hacking and sneezing are normal when you have a cold. Other problems, like a high fever, aren’t.

If any of your symptoms concern you, put your mind at ease -- call the doctor.