Colds: Signs and symptoms

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Recognising colds

Colds can be managed effectively, so it helps to know how to identify this common disease.

Woman blowing her nose

Symptoms of colds

Nasal symptoms are the most bothersome symptoms of a cold, namely:1,2

More than 90% of the population suffers from nasal symptoms due to the common cold each year.1

Nasal symptoms impact quality of life due to:

Baby specifics:6-8

  • Colds and infections of the upper respiratory system are the most common illnesses among infants because of the difficulty they have in sneezing to free the nose and the rhinopharynx from mucus and other secretions
  • Increased nasal secretions usually cause congestion, a runny nose, coughing and vomiting, and if the problem is not dealt with immediately, complications may arise
  • Dyspnoea, or shortness of breath, increases during feeding, so that the baby fails to absorb sufficient fluids or take in sufficient food, becomes irritable and upset, and experiences poor quality sleep, which affects normal development
  • Secondary middle ear infections are frequent, and in more serious and persistent cases, inflammation of the sinuses can occur
  • Symptoms of congestion are described as:8
    • Irregular, strained or heavy breathing.
    • Clogged, closed, reddened, chapped or dirty nasal passages.
  • There are typically three levels of severity described by mothers:8
    1. A mild runny nose that isn’t completely blocked
    2. A blocked nose that doesn’t run but is usually easily cleared
    3. A severely blocked nose with thick, green mucus
  • Questions to ask your patient

    Clinician and patient

    Questions to ask your patient:10

    1. What symptoms have you been experiencing?
    2. Have your symptoms been continuous?
    3. How severe are the symptoms?
    4. Did your symptoms improve and then worsen?
    5. What, if anything, seems to improve the symptoms?
    6. What, if anything, worsens symptoms?
  • When to refer your patient for further care

    Clinicians talking

    A patient might need to be referred for further care under the following circumstances:11


    • symptoms that don’t improve after 10 days or appear to be worsening
    • a fever of 100.4°F (37°C) or higher
    • cough that produces mucus
    • severely swollen lymph nodes, ear pain, or vomiting
    • severe sinus pain
    • chest pains
    • abdominal pain
    • a stiff neck or extreme headache
    • trouble breathing or shortness of breath
    • severe dizziness or new unsteadiness


    • a fever of 100.4°F (37°C) (for children older than three months old)
    • a fever that lasts more than three days
    • symptoms that last more than 10 days or appear to be worsening
    • a blue or gray tint to their skin, especially around the lips, nose, and fingernails
    • ear pain
    • abdominal pain or vomiting
    • swollen lymph nodes
    • wheezing or difficulty breathing
    • a stiff neck or severe headache
    • no thirst, poor fluid intake, and decreased urination
    • trouble swallowing or excessive drooling
    • a persistent cough
    • more crying bouts than normal
    • unusual levels of fatigue or irritability

Understanding colds

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Find out more about colds.

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Causes and mechanisms

Find out about the causes and mechanisms of colds.

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Learn how colds should be managed.

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The Otrivin range

Provide rapid and sustained relief of nasal congestion.9

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Patient care resources

Access a leaflet for your patients, which can help them understand the causes of colds and how best to treat them.

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