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Common cold complications

Complications after having a cold include acute sinusitis, acute bronchitis and ear infections.

In addition, if you have a health condition such as asthma, chronic bronchitis or emphysema, you may experience several weeks of respiratory symptoms long after the cold is over.

Sinus infection (acute sinusitis)

Acute sinusitis is characterised by inflammation and swelling of the mucus membranes that line your sinus cavities. The 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 blocked. If your cold lingers for more than 10 days and you begin to have pain in the sinus area, headache, upper tooth pain, nasal obstruction, cough or thick yellow/green nasal drainage, seek medical advice. You may have acute sinusitis.

Asthma attack

If you have asthma, a cold can make you feel congested and make you cough as you try to expel mucus from your throat or lungs. You may 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 your asthma worsening, follow your asthma action plan. If it continues to get worse, seek medical advice from your doctor or asthma nurse or get medical treatment immediately.

Acute bronchitis (chest cold)

Acute bronchitis (also called a chest cold) is an inflammation and irritation of the airways caused by a viral or bacterial infection. With acute bronchitis or a “chest cold”, you may have a cough that produces mucus. This may be thick and yellow. Most people with bronchitis recover without medical treatment. If these symptoms persist for more than a week, though, or you develop shortness of breath, seek medical advice immediately.

Sore throat and tonsillitis

Sore throats are common when you have a cold. With a sore throat, it’s hard to swallow and eating may even become a chore. While a sore throat with a cold is caused by a virus, bacteria can also cause sore throats and tonsillitis (most commonly group A beta-haemolytic streptococcus, also known as streptococcus pyongenes).

Ear infection

Ear infections are another common cold complication, more often seen in children than in adults. With an ear infection, you may have ear pain, difficulty sleeping, clear or yellow mucus in your nose, a low-grade fever or ear discharge. Viruses cause many ear infections, and antibiotics have no effect on these. For bacterial ear infections, the culprit is usually a streptococcus bacterium.

Chronic medical conditions

If you have a chronic illness such as asthma, heart disease, diabetes, COPD (eg emphysema) or HIV/AIDS, catching a cold can lead to a more serious health problem. That’s why it’s important to know what preventative and treatment steps to take.

When to seek medical advice about common cold complications

If you or your child has any of the following symptoms, these are an indicator that you should seek medical advice:

  • Earache
  • Pain in the sinuses (around the nose and eyes) for more than a week
  • Fever above 38°C
  • A cough that produces produces blood-stained phlegm
  • Shortness of breath
  • Worsening symptoms
  • Cold symptoms that last longer than three weeks.

Although these complications mean you may need to see a doctor, the good news is that you can usually get treatment for them. Unlike common cold symptoms, bacterial infections can often be successfully treated with antibiotics.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on June 26, 2014

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