We have all had the common cold. The classic symptoms of nasal congestion, sneezing, and cough can have you stuck in bed for several days

Set up for a fall

A cold is usually the result of infection by one of many common respiratory viruses. In an otherwise healthy person without underlying lung disease, the typical cold will resolve in a few days without specific treatment and will usually not lead to permanent damage. However, in a person with underlying lung disease a cold can be anything but common. 

For decades, clinicians have suspected that respiratory viral infections were a major cause of asthma flares. It is now evident that most such flares, which can lead to hospitalizations, are due to common cold viruses. In adults with chronic obstructive lung disease (COPD), which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema, up to two-thirds of flares of their lung disease have been linked to respiratory viral infections.

Although it remains unclear if all patients with COPD are at greater risk of viral infection, older patients and those with more severe lung disease may be at risk for complications from a simple respiratory viral infection. Similar events may also happen with other types of chronic lung disease, including cystic fibrosis, pulmonary fibrosis and others.

“Although it is not possible to completely avoid them, viral respiratory infections are more likely to occur during certain times of the year, like the winter.”

Flu basics

With this knowledge, it is important to understand how to approach a common cold. Although it is not possible to completely avoid them, viral respiratory infections are more likely to occur during certain times of the year, like the winter.

The presence of high fever and severe muscle aches should lead otherwise healthy patients to suspect that they may have the flu, especially in the months of October through May. This type of flu is more serious than a common cold, particularly in patients with lung disease. It can lead to complications, such as is bacterial pneumonia and may need to be treated with specific anti-viral medications. Patients without underlying lung disease should consider seeing a doctor if symptoms of a cold persist for more than a week, they develop discolored sputum or a high fever, or if symptoms worsen after initially getting better.

If you are at risk

In patients with underlying lung diseases, a bit more care is warranted. During times of the year when colds are frequent or when family members have cold symptoms, make sure to frequently wash your hands and cover your cough to minimize the chance of any spread. If a cold develops, you should pay close attention to respiratory symptoms. Increased breathlessness or fatigue, increased cough, discolored sputum, chest discomfort or fever should lead to medical evaluation.

Those living with underlying lung diseases should be especially mindful during flu season as to avoid additional complications.