When Does a Runny Nose Require Medical Attention?

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January 21, 2020


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This post is available in: Spanish

A runny nose can seem harmless at first, or just part of a typical cold or allergic reaction. But does it require medical attention?

When germs that cause colds first infect the nose and sinuses, which contain air-filled pockets, the nose produces clear mucus. This helps wash the germs from the nose and sinuses. After two or three days, clear mucus may change to a white, yellow, or green color. This is is usually a normal process during a viral infection, or cold, and it does not mean that you or your child needs antibiotics, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Antibiotics are not needed to treat a cold-related runny nose, which almost always gets better on its own. Your healthcare professional will determine what type of illness you or your child has by asking about symptoms and doing a physical examination. Sometimes they will also swab the inside of your nose or mouth to detect influenza viruses. Your doctor may prescribe antiviral drugs for flu prevention or treatment.

When you have a common cold, mucus fills your nose. That can cause a runny nose, congestion, and mucus to drip down your throat (post-nasal drip), which can produce a sore throat and cough. Nonetheless, there are times when a runny nose is accompanied by other symptoms which may require an online visit with a doctor or a trip to the doctor’s office or urgent care facility.

Seek medical attention if the runny nose “is not getting better, or in fact getting worse or if it’s changing color,” explains Andrew Rivera, M.D., an ENT-Otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat doctor) with Baptist Health South Florida. “Most people that start out with a cold or a virus or allergy, will produce clear mucus, but if it last four to six weeks, or if it turns green or foul-smelling, then it’s time to see a specialist.”

A runny nose can sometimes be a sign of something more serious than the common cold, such as a bacterial infection that may require antibiotics, said Dr. Rivera.

“High fever, sinus pain and color change (in the mucus) are all symptoms that suggest this is not a routine thing that your immune system is capable of clearing up,” Dr, Rivera said. “And, at that point, it may indicate that the condition is due to a bacteria that requires further treatment of antibiotics or something a little bit stronger than typical over-the-counter remedies.”

When to Call Your Doctor
If a runny nose is accompanied by any of the following, seek medical help:

  • High fever
  • Sinus pain
  • Yellow and green mucus
  • Worsening symptoms

Other signs and symptoms of the common cold can include:

  • Sneezing
  • Stuffy nose
  • Sore throat
  • Coughing
  • Post-nasal drip (mucus dripping down your throat)
  • Watery eyes
  • Mild headache
  • Mild body aches

These cold symptoms usually peak within 2-3 days but can last for up to 10-14 days.

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