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Common Cold – or Something More Serious?

May 11, 2021

You feel it coming on: itchy eyes, runny nose, a tickle in your throat. Over the next few days, your symptoms progress to include sneezing, congestion, fatigue, cough and a sore throat. Despite your best efforts, it looks like you’ve caught the common cold, and if you’re not attentive it could get worse.

How Common Is the Cold?

Colds are a minor viral infection that account for more doctor visits than any other illness. Adults, on average, catch two to four colds a year — kids even more — with most cases reported between September and May.

Highly contagious, colds spread much like the flu, by droplets of fluid or inhaled. The most common cause, rhinovirus, accounts for more than 40 percent of reported cases, usually last less than 10 days and can be treated with symptom relief medications and rest.

If left unchecked however, a cold can progress to more serious illnesses. And sneezing, congestion and sore throat also can be symptoms of other ailments.

  • Think it might be the flu? Although both viral in nature, colds differ from the flu, which ramps up faster and includes more severe symptoms such as weakness, chills and body aches. 

  • Think it might be allergies?  Allergies can share symptoms with the common cold, but allergies are noncontagious responses of your immune system to an allergen, often seasonal and controllable by antihistamines.

Other Illnesses Can Stem from a Cold

Fighting any minor ailment weakens your immune system, leaving you vulnerable to other illnesses. The four most-common conditions stemming from a common cold virus, or that begin with cold-like symptoms, include:

  • Acute bronchitis - Also called a “chest cold,” acute bronchitis results from excessive mucus in your lungs and swollen airways. This can bring additional health complications such as chest tightness, heavy cough and exhaustion. 

  • Sinus infections - Sinusitis occurs when fluid builds up in your sinuses and allows bacteria to grow. This can trigger other symptoms, such as severe facial pain, headaches, earaches and bad breath.

  • Pneumonia - Pneumonia causes fluid to form in the lungs’ air sacs. Though a bacterial infection can cause pneumonia, it more often results from another viral infection, such as a cold or flu. Pneumonia’s symptoms include chest pain, shortness of breath, vomiting and diarrhea. It can become severe and lead to lung abscess or respiratory failure. 

  • Strep throat - Strep throat is a highly contagious bacterial infection. It often starts quickly and includes pain with swallowing, fever and swollen neck lymph nodes. At first, the post-nasal drip irritation might look similar to a cold, but since strep is viral, it can be treated with antibiotics.

When To See Your Doctor

While most common colds only come with mild symptoms that are manageable by over-the-counter remedies such as ibuprofen, cough syrups and decongestants, some more critical reactions could warrant a trip to the doctor or emergency room:

  • Prolonged fever above 102 F

  • Symptoms lasting longer than 10 days, or that worsen

  • Shortness of breath or labored breathing

  • Pain or pressure in the chest

  • Lightheadedness or fainting

  • Confusion or disorientation

  • Severe or persistent vomiting, dehydration

  • Severe pain in your face, forehead or ears

If you’re over 65, pregnant or have chronic health conditions such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease, speak with your doctor to find out which medications and treatments are safe and effective.

 

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