Dr. Alan Greene answers the question, How do I know what's a simple cold and what's more serious?

By Alan Greene, MD, FAAP
October 03, 2005


How does a parent know what is a simple cold and what is more complicated or when antibiotics are needed? Is it the presence of green nasal discharge or a fever?


It's a commonly held belief that green nasal discharge is an indication that antibiotics are needed. But green nasal discharge for a few days can be a normal part of a regular viral cold. A green discharge by itself is not a good reason to start antibiotics and does not indicate that the child has developed a sinus infection. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has said that thick, discolored nasal discharge is a normal part of a cold and is not a reason for antibiotics unless it lasts longer than 10 to 14 days without any improvement.

A fever is part of the body's way of fighting the virus. The virus is happiest at 98.6 degrees, so a fever is generally a good thing when you are sick. And it does not mean that antibiotics are needed for a cold.

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