Complications of the common cold: asthma, streptococci, and more


A cold usually goes away without treatment or a trip to the doctor. However, sometimes a cold can become a complication for health such as bronchitis or strep throat.

Young children, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems are more likely to experience complications. They should control their cold symptoms carefully and call their doctor at the first sign of a complication.

If the symptoms of the cold last more than 10 days or if they continue to get worse, you may have a secondary problem. In these cases, you should call your doctor.

Acute infection of the ear (otitis media)

A cold can cause fluid buildup and congestion behind the eardrum. When bacteria or the cold virus infiltrate the generally air-filled space behind the eardrum, the result is an ear infection. This usually causes an extremely painful earache.

Ear infection is a common complication of the common cold in children. A very small child who can not verbalize what he feels may cry or sleep badly. A child with an ear infection may also have green or yellow nasal discharge or a recurrence of fever after a common cold.

Often, ear infections disappear in one or two weeks. Sometimes, all that is needed to alleviate the symptoms can be these simple treatments:

  • hot compresses

  • over-the-counter medications, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen

  • ear drops

In some cases, doctors may prescribe antibiotics. In a small number of cases, probe surgery may be necessary to drain the fluids from the ear.

Call your doctor if your child has symptoms of an ear infection.

Keep reading: About the ear infection »

Asthma attack

A cold is one of the most common triggers of asthma attacks, especially in young children. Cold symptoms may last longer in people with asthma. Asthma symptoms, such as wheezing or tightness in the chest, can also get worse during a cold.

If you have asthma and get a cold, the Mayo Clinic recommends the following steps:

  • Control your air flow with your peak flow meter at the same time each day, and adjust your asthma medications accordingly.

  • Review your asthma action plan, which details what to do if the symptoms worsen. If you do not have one of these plans, talk with your doctor about how to create one.

  • Rest as much as possible and drink plenty of fluids.

  • If your asthma symptoms get worse, adjust your medication accordingly and call your doctor.

The keys to preventing an asthma attack related to the cold is to know how to manage your asthma during an illness and seek an early treatment when the symptoms appear.

Seek medical help immediately if:

  • your breathing becomes extremely difficult

  • your throat is severely sore

  • you have pneumonia symptoms


Sinusitis is an infection of the sinuses and nasal passages. It is marked by:

  • facial pain

  • Severe headaches

  • fever

  • cough

  • sore throat

  • loss of taste and smell

  • a feeling of fullness in the ears

Occasionally, it can also cause bad breath.

Sinusitis can develop when a common cold persists and blocks your sinuses. The blocked sinuses trap bacteria or viruses in the nasal mucus. This causes sinus infection and inflammation.

Acute sinusitis can last up to twelve weeks, but is usually curable. Your doctor may suggest over-the-counter pain relievers, decongestants, and possibly antibiotics. Inhaling steam can also bring relief. To do this, pour boiling water into a bowl or saucepan, then lean over it with a towel over your head and inhale the steam. A hot shower and saline nasal sprays can also help.

If you have symptoms of sinusitis or if cold symptoms persist for more than 10 days, contact your doctor. Serious complications can arise if the sinusitis is left untreated, although this is rare.

Strep throat

Sometimes, people with a cold may also have strep throat. Streptococcal pharyngitis is more common in children between 5 and 15 years of age, but adults can also get strep.

Streptococcal pharyngitis is caused by streptococcal bacteria. You can get in contact with a person or infected surface, breathe airborne particles released when a person coughs or sneezes, or share items with an infected person.

The symptoms of strep throat include:

  • a painful throat

  • difficulty to swallow

  • swelling, red tonsils (sometimes with white spots or pus)

  • Small red spots on the palate.

  • swollen and tender lymph nodes in the neck

  • fever

  • headache

  • exhaustion

  • eruption

  • Stomach pain or vomiting (more common in young children)

Streptococcal pharyngitis is usually treated with a combination of antibiotics and over-the-counter pain relievers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen. Most people begin to feel better within 48 hours of starting antibiotics. It is important that you take all antibiotics even if you feel better. The interruption of treatment with antibiotics halfway can cause a recurrence of symptoms or even serious complications such as kidney disease or rheumatic fever.


This complication is an irritation of the mucous membranes of the bronchi in the lungs.

Symptoms of bronchitis include:

  • cough (often with mucus)

  • chest tightness

  • fatigue

  • slight fever

  • cold

More often, simple remedies are all that is needed to treat this complication.

Treatment of bronchitis

  • Rest well.

  • Drink much liquid.

  • Use a humidifier.

  • Take over-the-counter pain medications.

However, you should contact your doctor if you have a cough that:

  • lasts more than three weeks

  • interrupt your sleep

  • it produces blood

  • is combined with a fever greater than 100.4 ° F (38 ° C)

  • It is combined with wheezing or shortness of breath.

More serious conditions, such as pneumonia, can develop from untreated chronic bronchitis.


Pneumonia can be especially dangerous and sometimes deadly for people in high-risk groups. These groups include young children, older adults, and people with existing conditions. Therefore, people in these groups should see their doctor at the first sign of pneumonia symptoms.

With pneumonia, the lungs become inflamed. This causes symptoms such as cough, fever and tremors.

Seek medical treatment immediately if you have any of the following symptoms of pneumonia:

  • Severe cough with large amounts of colored mucus.

  • short of breath

  • persistent fever greater than 102 ° F (38.9 ° C)

  • Acute pain when breathing deeply

  • sharp pains in the chest

  • severe chills or sweating

Pneumonia is often very sensitive to treatment with antibiotics and supportive therapy. However, smokers, older adults and people with heart or lung problems are especially prone to complications of pneumonia. These groups should closely monitor your cold symptoms and seek medical attention at the first sign of pneumonia.


Bronchiolitis is an inflammatory condition of the bronchioles (the smallest airways of the lungs). It is a common but sometimes serious infection, usually caused by respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Bronchiolitis usually affects children under 2 years of age. In its early days, its symptoms are similar to those of a common cold and include runny or stuffy nose and, sometimes, fever. Afterwards, wheezing, rapid heartbeat or shortness of breath may occur.

In healthy babies, this condition usually does not require treatment and disappears in one or two weeks. Bronchiolitis may require medical attention in premature babies or in people with other medical conditions.

All parents should seek immediate medical attention if their child has any of the following symptoms:

  • Extremely fast and shallow breathing (more than 40 breaths per minute)

  • Blue skin, especially around the lips and nails.

  • I need to sit down to breathe.

  • Difficulty eating or drinking due to the effort of breathing.

  • audible wheezing


Croup is a condition that is seen mostly in young children. It is characterized by a rough cough that sounds similar to a barking seal. Other symptoms include fever and a hoarse voice.

Croup can often be treated with over-the-counter pain relievers, but you should still talk to your child's pediatrician if your child shows signs of croup. Seek immediate medical attention if your child has any of the following symptoms:

  • Strong and sharp respiratory sounds when inhaled.

  • difficulty swallowing

  • excessive drooling

  • extreme irritability

  • difficult breathing

  • Blue or gray skin around the nose, mouth or nails

  • a fever of 103.5 ° F (39.7 ° C) or higher

The interruption of lifestyle

Interruption of sleep

Sleep is often affected by the common cold. Symptoms, such as runny nose, nasal congestion and cough, can make breathing difficult. This can prevent you from getting enough sleep to function properly during the day.

A series of over-the-counter cold medications can help relieve symptoms. This can also help you get the rest you need to fully recover. Ask your doctor for help in choosing the right type for your needs.

Physical difficulties

Physical activity can also be difficult if you have a cold. Strenuous exercise can be especially challenging because nasal congestion makes breathing difficult. Follow gentle forms of exercise, such as walking, so you can stay active without trying too hard.

To take away

Pay close attention to your cold symptoms, especially if you are part of a high-risk group. Contact your doctor if your symptoms last longer than normal or if you start having new and unusual symptoms. Early diagnosis is crucial to manage possible complications.

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