Common cold symptoms

Symptoms of the common cold and when you should see a doctor

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Immune System Expert
Ask Dr. Jen Tan

Common symptoms of the cold

Despite the fact that more than 200 viruses can cause the common cold, symptoms tend to follow the same pattern:

  • Symptoms of a cold appear 1 or 2 days after you become infected by a cold virus. Typically, you will start with a sore throat, a mild cough or hoarseness. You may have a runny or blocked nose or suffer from bouts of sneezing
  • As your cold develops, discharge of mucus from your nose will increase and become thicker. Your nose may begin to feel blocked making it difficult to sleep 
  • This congestion may lead to a headache. This is more likely to happen with a head cold.

Less common symptoms

More unusual symptoms of a cold include:

  • Feeling lethargic – a feeling of sluggishness or lacking the energy you need for your usual mental and physical activities
  • Earache – this is when fluid builds up in the middle ear, behind the eardrum. Pressure within this part of the ear increases, leading to pain, especially if infection is present. This condition, known as otitis media, is more common in children
  • Muscle pain – this is more commonly encountered with the flu. However, a bad cold may be indistinguishable from flu and give rise to muscle pain. This happens because the body’s immune system fights the infection by releasing chemicals which can also cause inflammation in joints and muscles.
  • Fever and sweating. These may be experienced with a severe cold. A fever is the body's natural mechanism for killing bugs and viruses, and bacteria do not like an increase in temperature. They may be accompanied by excessive sweating and night sweats.

Complications of the common cold

In the vast majority of cases, colds resolve quickly without any major health problems. Although symptoms such as coughs or sore throats  may be irritating and uncomfortable these symptoms do not tend to persist for more than a week. However, on rare occasions a cold can lead to complications including:

  • Sinusitis – sinuses are small air cavities behind the cheekbones and forehead. The lining of these can become infected and inflamed, causing pain. Sinusitis generally clears up after two or three weeks, although the problem may recur. It is more likely with a head cold
  • Pneumonia – in rare cases, a cold can lead to a chest infection or pneumonia. This condition arises when lung tissue become inflamed, leading to difficulty breathing. The elderly, the very young, smokers, and people with a weakened immune system are most likely to develop pneumonia after a cold
  • Worsening of asthma – asthma is a long-term condition which causes your airways to narrow leading to breathing difficulties. A cold can thicken the mucous lining of the respiratory tract, triggering episodes of breathing problems known as ‘asthma attacks’.

When to see the doctor

It is unlikely that you will have to go to the doctor to treat your cold symptoms. With the use of conventional cold remedies from your healthfood store, pharmacy or supermarket and with the use of cold and flu remedies such as echinacea for colds and flu, typically, your cold will resolve quickly.

However, you should seek the advice of your doctor if:

  • Your cold symptoms persist or do not improve within 10 days
  • You develop complications of the cold as described above
  • You are worried about your health.

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