Everything You Need to Know About the Common Cold

Table of Contents

What’s the Difference Between a Cold and the Flu?
Signs and Symptoms
When to See a Doctor
Treatments for Adults
Treatments for Children
How Long Does a Cold Last?
Is Colds Contagious?
Risk Factors


Statistically, the common cold is the most prevalent illness worldwide. In fact, there are more than 250 types of viruses that cause the symptoms of a common cold.

The National Institutes of Health estimates that Americans have one billion colds each year, which account for more than 22 million days missed school days and even more days of absence from work each year. The CDC estimates adults average about two to three colds each year, while children experience eight to 12 colds per year.

Although you can come down with a cold most any time of the year, the majority of colds occur in the winter and spring.

What’s the Difference Between a Cold and the Flu?

Both the common cold and flu are viral respiratory illnesses that share similarities. The majority of cases of the common cold and flu resolve on their own without complications.

Symptoms common to both of these viral illnesses include:

  • Sore throat;
  • Cough;
  • Muscle aches;
  • Fatigue;
  • Stuffy nose, and;
  • Sneezing.

Since both the common cold and flu are caused by viruses, antibiotics have no real place in their treatment, except to treat bacterial complications of the disease. Furthermore, if antibiotics are used inappropriately, it increases the chances of future resistance to antibiotics, which is an ongoing crisis in health care.

This is where the similarities between the common cold and flu end.

The symptom onset of the common cold is gradual, while the symptom onset of the flu is abrupt. While there are over 250 types of viruses that cause the common cold,  three types of viruses — influenza A, B, and C — cause the majority of cases. The common cold typically does not severely restrict your activity, which is not the case with flu, as many report not being able to even get out of bed. Lastly, fever is not typically a significant part of the symptom complex of the common cold, while it’s common to have a fever anywhere from 100.4° F to 104° F with the flu.

Signs and Symptoms

Between one and three days after cold enters your body, the symptoms of the common cold start to develop, such as:

  • Runny nose;
  • Nasal congestion, which could lead to postnasal;
  • Sneezing;
  • Cough, and;
  • Sore throat.

Other less commonly experienced symptoms of the common cold may include:

  • Mild headaches;
  • Body aches;
  • Fever, typically a low-grade fever;
  • Decreased or loss of senses of smell and taste, and;
  • Swollen lymph nodes.

The sequence of common cold symptoms typically starts with the development of a sore throat, which occurs in about 50 percent of people. This is followed by the development of runny nose, nasal congestion, and sneezing. Cough typically follows and may last for several weeks.

When to See a Doctor

Since most cases of the common cold are self-limiting, you may not ever have to see a doctor.

Most of the symptoms of a mild-to-moderate cold can be eased with over the counter (OTC) medications. For severe cold symptoms, you should consider visiting to your doctor. Also, if your symptoms are worsening or are lingering for more than two to three weeks, you should make an appointment with your doctor.

Although infrequent, some individuals with a common cold can develop secondary bacterial infections, such as infections of the middle ear, sinuses, or lungs. So, beware if you develop:

  • A fever greater than 102° F;
  • Wheezing;
  • Difficulty breathing;
  • Increasing/severe chest, sinus, or unilateral ear pain;
  • Shaking chills;
  • Incessant nausea and/or vomiting;
  • Diarrhea, or;
  • Profuse sweating.

If you develop any of these worrisome symptoms, an office visit to your doctor will often suffice to make sure you don’t have a more serious illness. But, if you are acutely ill and it seems to be dramatically worsening, you should go to your local hospital’s emergency department for evaluation.


A trip to your doctor is rarely needed for the diagnosis of the common cold. Most individuals with the common cold are familiar with the telltale symptoms.

If you do have to visit your health care provider, all that is typically needed to diagnose a cold are a review of symptoms and physical examination. Usually, no blood tests or imaging studies are needed. The physical examination is also useful to rule out any complications or conditions that can mimic colds.

Treatments for Adults

There is no cure for the common cold, but there are many treatments available to ease the annoying symptoms in adults.

General Measures

General measures for battling colds include drinking plenty of fluids and getting plenty of rest.

Adequate hydration helps you clear troublesome mucus and avoid dehydration. Plain water, juice, sports beverages, herbal tea, and clear broth are excellent choices. On the other hand, you should avoid alcohol, coffee, and caffeinated sodas.

It should be noted that there is no scientific evidence for the effectiveness of treating a cold with antibiotics.

OTC Medications

OTC remedies for runny nose, nasal congestion, and cough include:

  • Decongestants;
  • Antihistamines, and;
  • Cough suppressants.

Many of these medications are available in OTC combination formulations.

If pain and/or fever are issues, consider using non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve). Adults can even use aspirin for pain relief.

If you have high blood pressure, you should consult your doctor before using any OTC remedies — especially decongestants — as they have the potential to further increase your blood pressure.

Home Remedies and Natural Treatments

Home remedies and natural treatments for the common cold are abundant.

If you are plagued by a sore throat, warm salt water gargles can help to soothe it. Ice chips and hard candy can also be helpful when dealing with a sore throat. Additionally, using a vaporizer or humidifier adds moisture to the air in your home, which could help loosen mucus and congestion.

Natural treatments that may also be helpful include vitamin C, echinacea, and zinc, but the evidence for their effectiveness is conflicting.

Treatments for Children

The same general measures used for adults can be used for the treatment of colds in children.

Doctors do not recommend the use of OTC cold medications for children. This is since the FDA and doctors do not recommend their use in children younger than six years old.

For pain and/or fever in children six months or younger, parents should only use acetaminophen, while in children older than six months, acetaminophen or ibuprofen are recommended. The dosing for these NSAIDs is usually based on weight and/or age.

Aspirin should be avoided in children since it increases the risk of Reye’s syndrome. This disease can potentially be fatal.


Currently, there are no vaccines available for the common cold that could prevent or shorten its duration or symptoms.

Frequent hand washing is the cornerstone of cold prevention. The CDC recommends you wash for at least 20 seconds with soap and water. This is the equivalent of singing or humming the “Happy Birthday” song two complete times

Since 95 percent of us don’t wash our hands correctly, don’t forget to include the wrists, between the fingers, the palms and tops of the hands, and under the fingernails. This one simple measure could decrease your chances of contracting a cold, the flu, and other respiratory illnesses by as much as 45 percent. If a sink and water are unavailable, the best alternative is an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Other measures to avoid contracting or spreading the common cold include:

  • Avoiding rubbing/touching your face, especially your eyes, nose, and mouth;
  • Avoiding close contact with others who are sick;
  • Coughing and sneezing into a tissue or the bend of your elbow;
  • Not sharing food, eating utensils, and drinking glasses with others;
  • Eating some yogurt or probiotic supplements.

Additionally, prevention of the common cold has been pursued with natural substances such as Echinacea, vitamin C, ginseng, and garlic.

How Long Does a Cold Last?

The common cold lasts an average of seven to 10 days. The symptoms of the common cold peak anywhere from the second to fourth day of the infection. Additionally, symptoms, especially a cough, can persist for several weeks in one-quarter of individuals with this viral illness. In even fewer individuals, the common cold can lead to secondary bacterial infections, which typically occurs at least two weeks after the initial infection.

Since the origins of colds are viral, it has to run its course. As such, antibiotics, OTC medications, and home remedies cannot prevent, shorten the duration, or cure the common cold.

Are Colds Contagious?

The common cold is very contagious. However, its contagiousness wanes over the course of about seven days.

Of the over 250 viruses responsible for the common cold, the most common causes are rhinoviruses, accounting for almost 40 percent of all cases. This family of viruses has at least 100 identifiable members. Other families of viruses that are major causes of the common cold are:

The highest concentrations of the contagious viruses causing a cold are found in secretions from the nose. The cold viruses contaminate your hands as a result of blowing your nose, sneezing, and touching your nose. The viruses can even be deposited on surfaces — such as doorknobs, desks, tabletops, and counters — through sneezes or coughs into the air. After hand-to-hand or hand-to-surface contact, you rub your nose or eyes, transferring the cold virus and commencing the infection.

Young children are even more susceptible to colds than adults because of their close proximity to other children. Also, they are being exposed to viruses for the first time.


The common cold has five stages. They are:

  • Stage 1 (Days 1 to 4): Commonly referred to as the incubation period. The cold virus enters your body and starts to multiply. While you may or may not notice symptoms at this stage, you are contagious at this stage.
  • Stage 2 (Days 2 to 5): During this stage, you will begin to develop the telltale symptoms of a cold.
  • Stage 3 (Days 3 to 6): During this stage, your symptoms will peak and may include runny nose, nasal congestion, cough productive of mucus, low-grade fever, and post-nasal drip.
  • Stage 4 (Days 5 to 7): Your symptoms will begin to wane and retreat. As such, you will be feeling much better during this stage.
  • Stage 5 (Days 7 to 10): The virus causing the cold has been totally cleared by your body. You are now immune to one of the more than 250 viruses that cause the common cold.


Although the common cold typically resolves on its own, it may lay the groundwork for a host of secondary bacterial infections. Many of these complications develop after having a cold for a few weeks. This is why it’s recommended to see your health care provider if your symptoms increase or last longer than two weeks.

Common complications of the common cold include:

  • Acute Bronchitis: This complication is characterized by chest congestion, cough, wheezing, and shortness of breath and maybe viral or bacterial in origin.
  • Pneumonia: This complication has symptoms similar to acute bronchitis but is more severe and can be life-threatening.
  • Acute Bacterial Sinusitis: This complication is typically characterized by facial pain/pressure, severe nasal congestion, drainage that can be electric yellow or green, and fever.
  • Strep Throat: This complication is characterized by a sore throat that may or may not has scattered white patches, fever, and swollen lymph nodes in the neck.
  • Meningitis: This complication — which is a very rare infection of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord — is characterized by severe headache, neck stiffness, and fever. It can be life-threatening.

Children deserve special mention as they can develop complications from the common cold such as middle ear infections, croup, and bronchiolitis.

Risk Factors

There are several risk factors that can increase your chances of coming down with a cold. These include:

  • Age: Children under the age of six and adults older than the age of 65 are more susceptible to colds.
  • Weakened Immune System: If you have a chronic health condition or other reason for a weakened immune system, you are more likely to develop colds.
  • Season of the Year: Although you can develop a cold at any time during the year, you’re more likely to come down with one in the fall, winter, and spring.
  • Smoking: If you are a smoker, you are not only more likely to catch a cold; also you are more likely to have severe symptoms.
  • Sleep Deprivation: If you get less than seven hours of sleep per night, you are more likely to develop colds.


The common cold is one of the most common illnesses in humans. Although the common cold is typically a minor annoyance, it certainly has the potential to make you miserable.

Since so many viruses can cause cold symptoms, the development of a vaccine for the common cold has not been possible. Besides, almost everyone who comes down with a cold will recover without any long-term complications.

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Oct 18, 2019