Infants and young children get more colds than adults—typically six to 10 per year—and are more likely to run a fever and to suffer cold-related complications that require doctor visits. Children, along with the elderly, smokers, and individuals with serious health problems such as asthma, heart disease, cancer, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), tend to suffer longer when they get colds.
When Is It More Than a Cold?
Chances are, even with a common cold, you’re still connected with your everyday life. But if your cold lasts much longer than two weeks or keeps coming back, allergies, sinusitis, or some other secondary infection may be the culprit.
"Fever is an important sign," says Dr. Norman Edelman, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association®
. Colds typically aren’t associated with high-grade fever. Adults with a fever of 102º F (39º C) or higher and children with a fever of 103º F (39.5º C) and higher, should see a doctor, Dr. Edelman advises.
If your infant is younger than 3 months old and has a fever of 100º F (37.8º C) or above, go to the doctor immediately, says pediatrician Dr. Carlos Lerner, medical director for children’s health at the Mattel Children’s Hospital at the University of California, Los Angeles. When in doubt, Dr. Lerner advises parents to give their doctor a call: "It’s worth getting some advice over the phone."
Serious Complications of the Common Cold
Colds can wear down your body’s natural defenses, leaving you vulnerable to health issues ranging from ear and sinus infections to strep throat, bronchitis, and pneumonia. And that’s the last thing you need. Headaches, fever, and sinus pain could point to a sinus infection that requires professional treatment.
"Certainly if you’ve had a cold or sinus infection and now you’ve got a worsening headache and a fever, that needs to be seen," says Dr. David Ross, an emergency physician at Penrose Hospital in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Cold medicines relieve typical cold symptoms. But if you have symptoms such as stabbing pains in the chest, a cough that brings up colored sputum, fever, or shortness of breath, you should see your doctor. If symptoms came on fast, you should seek immediate medical care, Dr. Ross says.
Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a common respiratory virus that shares symptoms with the common cold but can cause severe symptoms in certain infants, young children, and older adults. While most people recover from RSV infection in one to two weeks, the virus is the most common cause of bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lung) and pneumonia in the United States for children younger than 12 months of age. Signs of breathing difficulties in infants include flaring nostrils, breathing faster than usual, straining muscles in the neck, or bluish discoloration around the lips and on the fingers. "If you see those things, bring them to the emergency room right away," says Dr. Ross.
Checklists of Cold Symptoms to Watch For
Most cold symptoms can be relieved with fast-acting, long-lasting cold medicines, cough drops, and nasal sprays. But if the symptoms become unmanageable, it may be worth a trip to the doctor. The American Academy of Family Physicians summarizes the red flags to look for.
- High fever (above 103º F or 39.5º C or above 100º F or 37.8º C for infants younger than 3 months), or a fever that lasts for more than three days
- Symptoms that last for more than 10 days
- Trouble breathing, fast breathing, or wheezing
- Bluish skin color
- Earache or drainage from the ear
- Changes in mental state (such as not waking up, irritability, or seizures)
- Flu-like symptoms that improve, but return with a fever and a worse cough
- Worsening of a chronic medical condition (such as diabetes or heart disease)
- A high, prolonged fever (above 102º F or 38.9º C)
- Symptoms that last for more than 10 days or get worse instead of better
- Trouble breathing or shortness of breath
- Pain or pressure in the chest
- Fainting or feeling like you are about to faint
- Confusion or disorientation
- Severe or persistent vomiting
- Severe pain in your face or forehead
- Hoarseness, sore throat, or a cough that won’t go away after 10 days