Complications of colds 

Colds usually clear up without causing any further problems. However, the infection can sometimes spread to your chest, ears or sinuses.


Sinusitis is an infection of the small air-filled cavities inside the cheekbones and forehead. It develops in up to 1 in every 50 adults and older children who have a cold.

Symptoms of sinusitis include:

  • pain and tenderness around your nose, eyes and forehead (sinus headache)
  • a blocked and runny nose
  • a high temperature of 38C (100.4F) or above

In most cases, the symptoms of sinusitis will resolve without the need for treatment. See your GP if your symptoms don't improve after a week or they're getting worse.

Middle ear infection (otitis media)

A middle ear infection (otitis media) develops in an estimated one in every five children under the age of five with a cold.

Symptoms of a middle ear infection include:

  • severe earache
  • a high temperature of 38C (100.4F) or above
  • flu-like symptoms, such as vomiting and a lack of energy
  • some loss of hearing

Most middle ear infections will resolve without treatment within a few days. Treatment is usually only required if your child has repeated middle ear infections.

Chest infection

A chest infection such as bronchitis and pneumonia can occur after a cold, as your immune system is temporarily weakened.

Symptoms of a chest infection include a persistent cough, bringing up phlegm (mucus), and shortness of breath.

Minor chest infections will resolve in a few weeks without specific treatment, but you should see your GP if:

  • your cough is severe
  • you have a persistent high temperature
  • you become confused or disorientated
  • you have a sharp pain in your chest
  • you cough up bloodstained phlegm 
  • your symptoms last longer than three weeks

In these cases, you could have a bacterial infection that needs to be treated with antibiotics.

Page last reviewed: 30/04/2015

Next review due: 30/04/2017