4 Common Cold & Flu Complications

Keep an eye on your symptoms

General practice doctor examining old woman's ear using otoscope
Credit: Science Photo Library - IAN HOOTON/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

The common cold and the flu typically last about a week. But if your symptoms have lasted longer than that and start to change, you may be suffering from a secondary infection. Both illnesses can leave you feeling pretty miserable, but these common complications of the cold and flu can make you feel even worse. Here's what you need to know about four of the most common cold and flu complications:

1. Bronchitis

A nagging cough that lasts longer than 2 weeks may be bronchitis.

It's likely caused by a virus, so it cannot be treated with antibiotics. See your healthcare provider, who will draw up a treatment plan.

Symptoms of bronchitis include:

  • A cough that may start dry and painful, and become productive with yellow or green mucus
  • Sore throat
  • Chest pain
  • Chest congestion
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Chills
  • Body aches

2. Pneumonia

A painful, productive cough may indicate pneumonia. It is a lung infection in which the lung's air sacs full up with pus or another liquid that makes it difficult for oxygen to reach the bloodstream. It usually occurs after you have had an infection such as the cold or flu. Pneumonia is a very serious illness that should be treated early, so contact your doctor immediately if you suspect any symptoms. Symptoms of pneumonia are:

  • Frequent, painful and/or productive cough
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Chest Pain
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Headaches
  • Shortness of breath
  • Bluish or grayish coloring around the mouth
  • Confusion or altered mental state

3. Ear Infections

Ear infections are very common after a cold or the flu, specially a middle ear infection. Although adults do get them, they are much more common amongst children. They can be quite painful, but they're easily treatable with acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

Older children and adults are usually able to identify an ear infection based on pain alone. For younger children, identifying an ear infection is a bit more difficult. Be on the lookout for these signs:

  • Pulling on the ear
  • Crying more than usual
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Drainage from the ear
  • Problems with balance or hearing
  • Unexplained fever

4. Sinus Infections

Sinus infections occur when mucus gets caught in the sinus cavities and they become infected. They can be very painful and affect people of all ages. They're very treatable with decongestants, pain relievers, and saline sprays and rinses. Symptoms of sinus infections include:

  • Pain or pressure in the face, especially around the eyes and nose
  • Congestion
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Cough that may become worse at night
  • Bad breath
  • Temporary loss of sense of smell

The Bottom Line

If you have had a cold or the flu and your symptoms have changed, worsened or have not improved after 2 weeks, you need to see your healthcare provider. This list includes only some of the most common complications.

There are many complications that occur from these illnesses. A visit to your health care provider will help you identify what is causing your symptoms and get you on the right treatment plan for you.

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