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Got a cold? Find out when to seek medical advice

In most cases, colds will get better on their own after a week or so. Symptoms can usually be eased with over-the-counter remedies.

See a GP or seek medical advice about a cold if you or a person you are concerned about has:

  • Symptoms lasting for longer than three weeks
  • A fever or high temperature of 39°C (102.2°F) or higher
  • Blood-stained phlegm or thick mucus is coughed up
  • Chest pain
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Severe swelling of the glands or lymph nodes in the neck or armpits

Seek medical advice sooner if you are concerned about a baby, young child, elderly person or someone with conditions affecting their breathing.

Cold complications

There are no real medical tests to determine whether you actually have a cold. No treatment is necessary for a cold, but self-help measures such as ensuring sufficient rest and fluids, alongside over the counter medication such as paracetamol and ibuprofen, can help relieve symptoms. In the UK, most doctors believe that cough medicines and decongestants are probably of limited use.

If you have a sore throat with fever and no cold symptoms, seek medical advice. This type of sore throat may be caused by a bacterial infection that may need treating with antibiotics.

If you have chest tightness, difficulty breathing and/or wheezing, seek urgent medical advice. You may have an associated complication such as bronchitis. Or you could have asthma and a cold. In either case, you’ll need a medical assessment to determine if further treatment is necessary.

Colds can cause earache, mainly from congestion and swelling of the eustachian tube, which connects the ear to the back of your nose. However, if decongestants don't help the pain or if it persists for more than a couple of days, seek medical advice. You may have an ear infection. If your GP thinks you have a bacterial ear infection, then you may need antibiotics. Most ear infections, however, are caused by viruses.

Also, if you have facial pain, tooth pain or yellow drainage from your nose, you may have acute sinusitis (inflammation and swelling in the sinuses, usually as a complication of a cold). While these symptoms can occur with just a cold, if you've had them for more than a week, you may need to seek medical advice.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on April 19, 2016

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