What To Know About Bad Cold Symptoms

Dehydration, dizziness, and vomiting are just a few signs of cold severity.

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You're probably familiar with the typical signs of the common cold, like coughing or sneezing. However, bad cold symptoms may look appear as issues with breathing and dehydration. Here's what you need to know about severe colds, as well as the treatment and prevention of colds in general.

When Is A Cold Considered Severe?

Cold symptoms will typically consist of a stuffy or runny nose, coughing, and watery eyes. Those and any other symptoms will reach their peak around two to three days and last anywhere from 10 to 14 days.

However, colds can be considered more serious if you experience:

  • Dehydration
  • Fever for more than four days
  • Long-lasting symptoms that don't improve
  • Trouble breathing or labored breathing
  • Severe vomiting
  • Strange behavior
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Worsening chronic medical conditions, such as asthma

You'll want to seek medical care if you have any of these symptoms.

Germs and Cold Severity

Viruses, particularly rhinovirus, are responsible for causing the common cold. However, you may also have the bacteria microbiome living inside your nose to blame.

In one study, researchers took samples from 152 people’s noses to examine the community of bacteria living there—their nasal microbiomes. People whose noses contained more of certain types of bacteria were found to have worse symptoms and more viruses in their bodies after getting sick with rhinovirus.

Specifically, participants with more Staphylococcus bacteria, or staph, had worse symptoms than those with less staph. However, the researchers only found an association between staph and worse symptoms—not that the presence of staph was the actual reason.

How Does a Cold Differ from the Flu?

Sometimes if you have a really bad cold, you might be convinced that it's actually the flu. That's because flu symptoms tend to be much more intense compared to the usually mild cold.

The illnesses also share some symptoms—like coughing or a sore throat—and are both caused by viruses. Still, there are some subtle symptom differences between the two:

  • Aches: Colds can occasionally result in some achiness, but achiness is a usual symptom of the flu.
  • Fever: A high fever can occur with both a cold and the flu. However, the flu may cause higher fevers than colds in general.
  • Timing: A cold may take a while to manifest itself; the flu will happen much quicker.

Treating Your Severe Cold

Treatments for colds won't cure the illness, but the treatments help reduce your symptoms.

For nasal symptoms, you can use a humidifier, vaporizer, or saline nose drops or sprays. Over-the-counter (OTC) cough or cold medicines can keep your cough at bay, while pain relievers like acetaminophen can ease any aches.

OTC cough and cold medicines are not recommended for children younger than 4 years of age. They can lead to serious—and occasionally life-threatening—side effects for children of that age.

Also, some cold and cough medicines come with pain relievers. Check labels if you use pain relievers and cold or cough medicines and carefully follow the instructions. Taking too much of a pain reliever can result in liver damage.

You'll want to stay hydrated by drinking enough fluids and ensure that you get enough rest.

How To Prevent Colds

Cold-prevention habits to help keep your immune system in tip-top shape include:

  • Avoiding others while you or they are sick
  • Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces
  • Eating a balanced diet
  • Getting plenty of sleep
  • Sneezing or coughing into your elbows, not your hands
  • Staying physically active
  • Washing your hands regularly

A Quick Review

A bad cold can go beyond your typical cough or runny nose; you could feel dizzy, vomit a lot, or have symptoms that won't go away. It might feel like you have the flu, but there are differences between colds and the flu.

If you have a severe cold, seek medical care and use appropriate treatments, like cold medicines. During and after your efforts to get better, try to prevent future colds with actions like healthy eating and regular handwashing.

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9 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common cold.

  2. MedlinePlus. How to treat the common cold at home.

  3. Merck Manual Professional Version. Common cold.

  4. American Lung Association. Facts about the common cold.

  5. Lehtinen, M.J., Hibberd, A.A., Männikkö, S. et al. Nasal microbiota clusters associate with inflammatory response, viral load, and symptom severity in experimental rhinovirus challengeSci Rep 8, 11411 (2018). doi:10.1038/s41598-018-29793-w

  6. American Academy of Family Physicians. What is a cold and what is the flu?

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The difference between cold and flu.

  8. MedlinePlus. Common cold.

  9. US Food and Drug Administration. Use caution with pain relievers.

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