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Common Cold – When to see a Doctor

The common cold is a viral infection of your nose and throat (upper respiratory tract). It’s usually harmless, although it might not feel that way. Many types of viruses can cause a common cold.

Children younger than 6 are at greatest risk of colds, but healthy adults can also expect to have two or three colds annually.

Most people recover from a common cold in a week or 10 days. Symptoms might last longer in people who smoke. If symptoms don’t improve, see your doctor.

Symptoms

Symptoms of a common cold usually appear one to three days after exposure to a cold-causing virus. Signs and symptoms, which can vary from person to person, might include:

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Congestion
  • Slight body aches or a mild headache
  • Sneezing
  • Low-grade fever
  • Generally feeling unwell (malaise)

The discharge from your nose may become thicker and yellow or green in color as a common cold runs its course. This isn’t an indication of a bacterial infection.

When to see a doctor

For adults — seek medical attention if you have:

  • Fever greater than 101.3 F (38.5 C)
  • Fever lasting five days or more or returning after a fever-free period
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Severe sore throat, headache or sinus pain

For children — in general, your child doesn’t need to see the doctor for a common cold. But seek medical attention right away if your child has any of the following:

  • Fever of 100.4 F (38 C) in newborns up to 12 weeks
  • Rising fever or fever lasting more than two days in a child of any age
  • Symptoms that worsen or fail to improve
  • Severe symptoms, such as headache or cough
  • Wheezing
  • Ear pain
  • Extreme fussiness
  • Unusual drowsiness
  • Lack of appetite

Diagnosis

Most people with a common cold can be diagnosed by their signs and symptoms. If your doctor suspects you have a bacterial infection or other condition, he or she may order a chest X-ray or other tests to exclude other causes of your symptoms.

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