Most colds are perfectly harmless, and usually go away within a week or so. But sometimes, the common cold can lead to health complications (including sinusitis), especially for people who are over the age of 65. Other times, the symptoms that you thought belonged to a cold are actually a sign of something more serious, like the flu.
Here are three signs that your cold is more serious than you think—and what to do next.
1. Your symptoms haven't gone away after a week.
The typical cold lasts for about seven to 10 days, but if your symptoms are lingering past the one-week-mark, it's time to call your doctor, says Ronan Factora, MD, a geriatrician with the Cleveland Clinic, in Ohio.
While most colds are caused by viruses (especially the rhinovirus), there's a chance that your sniffling and sneezing is the result of a bacterial infection. "Oftentimes, bacterial infections don't resolve themselves without antibiotics," he says.
Still, he cautions, antibiotics aren't always the answer. Not only are these medicines ineffective against viruses, but they also kill off some of the "good" bacteria in your gut. "That can set up problems, too," says Dr. Factora, "particularly in folks who are older."
At the doctor's office, your MD can also order a blood test or chest X-ray to see if there are other underlying causes of your symptoms, he says.
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2. You have a fever and muscle aches.
People can have a hard time determining whether they have a cold or the flu, says Dr. Factora. But because the flu can trigger more health complications than the common cold—especially for adults over the age of 65 and those with chronic heart, lung, or kidney diseases—it's important to know the difference between the two illnesses.
A cold is characterized by a runny nose, nasal congestion, a sore throat, a cough, and sneezing, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. If you have the flu, however, you may experience symptoms like a fever, muscle aches, and fatigue.
If you suspect that you have the flu, call your doctor. He or she may prescribe you a course of antiviral medications that can treat the infection. The catch: These medicines work best if they're taken right after you become sick, or ideally within two days of getting the flu.
After you recover from the flu, you can also be at risk for pneumonia, an infection in which the air sacs in the lungs fill with fluid or pus, according to the Mayo Clinic. The most common type of bacteria that causes pneumonia is Streptococcus pneumoniae.
"After you're done with the flu, your immune system is really run down," says Dr. Factora. "You're just not able to fight off infections quite as well, and often, the pneumonia that comes after the flu leads to a lot of hospitalizations and mortality."
3. You have a pre-existing lung disease.
A cold can trigger additional breathing problems in people with pre-existing lung diseases like asthma, emphysema, and COPD, says Dr. Factora. For example, the American Lung Association points out that people with asthma or emphysema can see a worsening of their condition for weeks after becoming infected, even after their cold has already disappeared.
If you have a lung disease and develop a cold, talk to your doctor, who might want to prescribe you more medication or even a short course of steroids, says Dr. Factora. "It's a good idea to contact your doctor if you're having these symptoms, and they can start treatment right away," he says.
And if your cold continues to get worse, be sure to call your doctor.
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