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Common cold complications

While normal cold symptoms are irritating, common cold complications can be more serious. Common cold complications such as acute sinusitis, acute bronchitis or ear infections can make you feel unwell.

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.

Common cold complications: more serious problems

Normal common cold symptoms don’t usually need to be checked by your GP. Symptoms such as a runny nose, sore throat and fatigue generally go away by themselves. If you have severe body aches or a fever over 38°C, you may have flu.

Sometimes, though, colds lead to other medical complications, including:

  • Sinus infections (acute sinusitis)
  • Asthma attacks
  • Acute bronchitis (“chest cold”)
  • 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. Let’s look at some of the common cold complications that occur.

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 a week 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).

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