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Common cold

Upper respiratory infection - viral; Cold

The common cold most often causes a runny nose, nasal congestion, and sneezing. You may also have a sore throat, cough, headache, or other symptoms.

Causes

It is called the common cold for good reason. There are over one billion colds in the United States each year. You and your children will probably have more colds than any other type of illness.

Colds are the most common reason that children miss school and parents miss work. Parents often get colds from their children.

Children can get many colds every year. They usually get them from other children. A cold can spread quickly through schools or daycares.

Colds can occur at any time of the year, but they are most common in the winter or rainy seasons.

A cold virus spreads through tiny, air droplets that are released when the sick person sneezes, coughs, or blows their nose.

You can catch a cold if:

  • A person with a cold sneezes, coughs, or blows their nose near you
  • You touch your nose, eyes, or mouth after you have touched something contaminated by the virus, such as a toy or doorknob

People are most contagious for the first 2 to 3 days of a cold. A cold is most often not contagious after the first week.

Is It a Cold or Allergy?

  • Sneezing, coughing, and a runny nose are symptoms of:

     

    A. A cold

     

    B. Allergies

     

    C. Either one

    Correct Answer
    The correct answer is either one. Colds have similar symptoms to allergic rhinitis, a type of allergy that affects the nose. Common triggers of allergic rhinitis include dust and pollen. To figure out whether your stuffy nose comes from a cold or allergies, think about when your symptoms began.
  • If you're allergic to something, a reaction usually begins within:

     

    A. A few seconds or minutes

     

    B. 24 hours

     

    C. Several days

    Correct Answer
    The correct answer is a few seconds or minutes. If you breathe in something you're allergic to, your body releases a chemical called histamine. This quickly triggers allergy symptoms, such as watery eyes or a runny nose. Using an antihistamine can help reduce allergy symptoms.
  • If you're around someone with a cold, you might get sick within:

     

    A. 24 hours

     

    B. 2-3 days

     

    C. 2-3 weeks

    Correct Answer
    The correct answer is 2-3 days. You can catch a cold if: • A person with a cold sneezes, coughs, or blows their nose near you. • You touch your nose, eyes, or mouth after touching something coated with a cold virus, such as a doorknob. You can help prevent colds by washing your hands or using a hand sanitizer often.
  • Having aches, pains, or a fever means you probably have a cold, not allergies.

     

    A. True

     

    B. False

    Correct Answer
    The correct answer is true. Allergies don't cause achiness or fever. Adults and older children with colds most often have a low fever or no fever. Young children with a cold often run a fever around 100-102°F. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) can help lower a fever. Never give aspirin to children. People with more severe allergies may feel tired.
  • If you have a cough or your throat hurts, you must have a cold.

     

    A. True

     

    B. False

    Correct Answer
    The correct answer is false. Either a cold or allergies can cause cough and a sore throat. Try hard candy or lozenges to ease a sore throat and calm a cough. Avoid using lozenges in children under age 3.
  • A cold usually lasts:

     

    A. 3 days

     

    B. 1 week

     

    C. 2 weeks

    Correct Answer
    The correct answer is 1 week. If you still feel sick after 7 days, see your doctor to rule out a sinus infection, allergies, or other medical problem.
  • Antibiotics can help treat a cold, but not allergies.

     

    A. True

     

    B. False

    Correct Answer
    The correct answer is false. Antibiotics only kill bacteria, not viruses. Colds are caused by viruses, and allergies are caused by allergens. This means antibiotics will not work against colds or allergies. Over-the-counter (OTC) cold medicines can help ease cold symptoms. Don't use any OTC cold remedies in children under age 6.
  • Which can trigger an asthma attack?

     

    A. A cold

     

    B. Allergies

     

    C. Either one

    Correct Answer
    The correct answer is either one. If you have asthma, a cold or allergies can make it worse. Use your rescue inhaler as prescribed if you begin wheezing. Colds are the most common trigger of asthma symptoms in children. If asthma medicine doesn't help, call your doctor.
  • A thick yellow or green nasal discharge is normal with a cold.

     

    A. True

     

    B. False

    Correct Answer
    The correct answer is true. The fluid from your runny nose will become thicker and may turn yellow or green within a few days. This is normal and does not mean that you need antibiotics. Drinking plenty of fluids can help. If discharge doesn't go away in 10 - 14 days, call your doctor.
  • The most common reason kids miss school and parents miss work is:

     

    A. Colds

     

    B. Allergies

    Correct Answer
    The correct answer is colds. There are over one billion colds in the United States each year. You and your children will likely have more colds than any other type of illness. Getting plenty of sleep, eating healthy foods, getting plenty of exercise, and not smoking can all help keep your immune system strong and keep you healthier.

Symptoms

Cold symptoms usually start about 2 or 3 days after you came in contact with the virus, although it could take up to a week. Symptoms mostly affect the nose.

The most common cold symptoms are:

Adults and older children with colds generally have a low fever or no fever. Young children often run a fever around 100°F to 102°F (37.7°C to 38.8°C).

Depending on which virus caused your cold, you may also have:

  • Cough
  • Decreased appetite
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Postnasal drip
  • Sore throat

Treatment

Most colds go away in a few days. Some things you can do to take care of yourself with a cold include:

  • Get plenty of rest and drink fluids.
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) cold and cough medicines may help ease symptoms in adults and older children. They do not make your cold go away faster, but can help you feel better. These OTC medicines are not recommended for children under age 4.
  • Antibiotics should not be used to treat a common cold.
  • Many alternative treatments have been tried for colds, such as vitamin C, zinc supplements, and echinacea. Talk to your health care provider before trying any herbs or supplements.

Outlook (Prognosis)

The fluid from your runny nose will become thicker. It may turn yellow or green within a few days. This is normal, and not a reason for antibiotics.

Most cold symptoms go away within a week in most cases. If you still feel sick after 7 days, see your provider. Your provider may check to rule out a sinus infection, allergies, or other medical problem.

Possible Complications

Colds are the most common trigger of wheezing in children with asthma.

A cold may also lead to:

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Try treating your cold at home first. Call your provider if:

  • You have problems breathing.
  • Your symptoms get worse or do not improve after 7 to 10 days.

Prevention

To lower your chances of getting sick:

  • Always wash your hands. Children and adults should wash hands after nose-wiping, diapering, and using the bathroom, and before eating and preparing food.
  • Disinfect your environment. Clean commonly touched surfaces (such as sink handles, door knobs, and sleeping mats) with an EPA-approved disinfectant.
  • Choose smaller daycare classes for your children.
  • Use instant hand sanitizers to stop the spread of germs.
  • Use paper towels instead of sharing cloth towels.

The immune system helps your body fight off infection. Here are ways to support the immune system:

  • Avoid secondhand smoke. It is responsible for many health problems, including colds.
  • DO NOT use antibiotics if they are not needed.
  • Breastfeed infants if possible. Breast milk is known to protect against respiratory tract infections in children, even years after you stop breastfeeding.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to help your immune system work properly.
  • Eat yogurt that contains "active cultures." These may help prevent colds. Probiotics may help prevent colds in children.
  • Get enough sleep.

References

Allan GM, Arroll B. Prevention and treatment of the common cold: making sense of the evidence. CMAJ. 2014;186(3):190-199. PMID: 24468694 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24468694.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common colds: protect yourself and others. www.cdc.gov/Features/Rhinoviruses/index.html. Updated February 11, 2019. Accessed March 1, 2019.

Miller EK, Williams JV. The common cold. In: Kliegman RM, Stanton BF, St. Geme JW, Schor NF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 20th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 379.

Turner RB. The common cold. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 361.

  • Tips on buying cold and flu medicines

    Animation

  •  

    Tips on buying cold and flu medicines - Animation

    They call it the common cold for a reason. Colds are extraordinarily common. Children average 3 to 8 colds a year and adults almost that many. I'm doctor Alan Greene and I want to give you a couple of tips about navigating the cold and flu aisle at the drug store. Many of the offerings that are there will offer relief in several different ways. They may have a decongestant in there to try to reduce nasal congestion. An antihistamine that may help a bit with sleep or may also help with some congestion. They may have a cough suppressant in there to make you cough less. An expectorant to make your cough more productive, so you can cough things out easier and may have something to bring down a temperature or relieve aches and pains, like acetaminophen, or ibuprofen. But if you pick-up more than one of these, it's pretty common for people to double-up on a specific ingredient. So, if you're using more than one, look at the ingredient list. You don't want to see the same thing on both. For instance, if you have the decongestant pseudoephedrine on two different lists, the double-dose is not good for you and doesn't add any extra help. But beyond that, you don't even want to find the same action in two different multisymptom things. So if you have, taking a decongestant, you don't want a decongestant in the other one, whatever kind of decongestant it is. And as reminder for kids under 6, decongestants, antihistamines, and cough suppressants have not been shown to help them any better than placebo and do have some side-effects. So, I don't recommend them at all for kids under 6.

  • The difference between a cold and the flu

    Animation

  •  

    The difference between a cold and the flu - Animation

    So what's the difference between cold and flu. The two words go together like salt and pepper or like New Year's and weight loss. I'm Dr. Alan Greene and I want to help you figure out what the difference is. Most people have a general idea that they are different, but when pressed have a hard time really saying what the difference is. The cold, the common cold, is something very common you usually get on average 3 or more times during a year. And it is a virus that's primarily in the nose. The cold is focused in the nose. The 3 main symptoms of a cold are sneezing, nasal stuffiness, and runny nose. All are focused in the nose. You may have other symptoms - you may have a fever of 100, 101, maybe you may have some tickling or scratchiness in the back of the throat. In fact, that may be the very first symptom - a little scratch in the back of the throat. Then after a couple days the nasal discharge tends to turn a little bit darker, greener. And then after about a week you're all the way better. But it's focused in the head, focused in the nose. With the flu you're sick all over. It's a whole body disease. It's a much more serious illness. The flu in the United States today still kills about 36,000 people a year. Mostly people who already are weak for some reason or another. But it's a serious illness. And it usually slams into you with a fever. Typically the fever is in the 102 all the way up to a 106 range. A higher fever often the first symptom and you feel sick all over. You have muscle aches, you're tired, you feel out of it, you really feel crummy. And after a couple of days the respiratory symptoms start to come too. And depending where the flu virus settles you might have some sneezing, you might have some coughing. The classic symptom is a dry, hacking kind of cough, could be wheezing, could be other things, but the cough is the most common. Then it's there also for around 7 days or so and then at the end of it you may have another peak of fatigue and a second peak of fever. But usually after about a week you'll start feeling better with most cases of the flu. Colds and flus are very, very different illnesses with a few of the same symptoms.

  • Common cold

    Animation

  •  

    Common cold - Animation

    Most people have a general idea that when they start sneezing, their nose is runny, and their throat is scratchy, they're getting a cold. But what do you do about it? The common cold is something very common that people usually get on average three or more times during a year. And it is a virus that's primarily in the nose. The three main symptoms of a cold are sneezing, nasal stuffiness, and runny nose. You may have other symptoms, like having a fever of 100? or 101?, or you may have some tickling or scratchiness in the back of your throat. In fact, that may be the very first symptom, a little scratch in the back of your throat. Then after a couple days the nasal discharge tends to turn a little bit darker, maybe a little greener. Then after about a week, you're all the way better. So, what's the best way to treat a cold? The first thing you need is plenty of rest and fluids. Water, juice, and clear broth can help replace fluids you may lose during a fever. Chicken soup is another great choice, in fact, it can help relieve congestion. In short, chicken soup really is good food. Over-the-counter oral cold and cough medicines may help ease adult symptoms, but they don't treat the virus that caused your cold. In fact, so far there is no cure for the common cold. ALSO, don't give a child under 6 any cold medicines, they won't help your child, and they may have serious side effects. And antibiotics? They won't help a cold, and, if you take them too often, antibiotics can break down your body's ability to benefit from them in the future when you may really need them, such as when you get the flu. In general, remember that getting plenty of rest and fluids is the best way to help you deal with your cold symptoms. Eventually, your cold symptoms usually go away, probably in about a week. If you still feel sick after a week, see your doctor to rule out a sinus infection, allergies, or any other medical problem.

  • Throat anatomy

    Throat anatomy - illustration

    Structures of the throat include the esophagus, trachea, epiglottis and tonsils.

    Throat anatomy

    illustration

  • Cold symptoms

    Cold symptoms - illustration

    Colds are caused by a virus and can occur year-round. The common cold generally involves a runny nose, nasal congestion, and sneezing. Other symptoms include sore throat, cough, and headache. A cold usually lasts about 7 days, with perhaps a few lingering symptoms such as a cough for another week.

    Cold symptoms

    illustration

  • Antibodies

    Antibodies - illustration

    Antigens are large molecules (usually proteins) on the surface of cells, viruses, fungi, bacteria, and some non-living substances such as toxins, chemicals, drugs, and foreign particles. The immune system recognizes antigens and produces antibodies that destroy substances containing antigens.

    Antibodies

    illustration

  • Cold remedies

    Cold remedies - illustration

    Sore throat, cough, stuffy nose, sneezing, runny nose, fever, chills, and muscle aches are all symptoms associated with the common cold. Over-the-counter medicines for a cold only alleviate cold symptoms but do not shorten the duration of a cold. As always, drinking plenty of fluids and rest are most important for recovery from a cold.

    Cold remedies

    illustration

  • Tips on buying cold and flu medicines

    Animation

  •  

    Tips on buying cold and flu medicines - Animation

    They call it the common cold for a reason. Colds are extraordinarily common. Children average 3 to 8 colds a year and adults almost that many. I'm doctor Alan Greene and I want to give you a couple of tips about navigating the cold and flu aisle at the drug store. Many of the offerings that are there will offer relief in several different ways. They may have a decongestant in there to try to reduce nasal congestion. An antihistamine that may help a bit with sleep or may also help with some congestion. They may have a cough suppressant in there to make you cough less. An expectorant to make your cough more productive, so you can cough things out easier and may have something to bring down a temperature or relieve aches and pains, like acetaminophen, or ibuprofen. But if you pick-up more than one of these, it's pretty common for people to double-up on a specific ingredient. So, if you're using more than one, look at the ingredient list. You don't want to see the same thing on both. For instance, if you have the decongestant pseudoephedrine on two different lists, the double-dose is not good for you and doesn't add any extra help. But beyond that, you don't even want to find the same action in two different multisymptom things. So if you have, taking a decongestant, you don't want a decongestant in the other one, whatever kind of decongestant it is. And as reminder for kids under 6, decongestants, antihistamines, and cough suppressants have not been shown to help them any better than placebo and do have some side-effects. So, I don't recommend them at all for kids under 6.

  • The difference between a cold and the flu

    Animation

  •  

    The difference between a cold and the flu - Animation

    So what's the difference between cold and flu. The two words go together like salt and pepper or like New Year's and weight loss. I'm Dr. Alan Greene and I want to help you figure out what the difference is. Most people have a general idea that they are different, but when pressed have a hard time really saying what the difference is. The cold, the common cold, is something very common you usually get on average 3 or more times during a year. And it is a virus that's primarily in the nose. The cold is focused in the nose. The 3 main symptoms of a cold are sneezing, nasal stuffiness, and runny nose. All are focused in the nose. You may have other symptoms - you may have a fever of 100, 101, maybe you may have some tickling or scratchiness in the back of the throat. In fact, that may be the very first symptom - a little scratch in the back of the throat. Then after a couple days the nasal discharge tends to turn a little bit darker, greener. And then after about a week you're all the way better. But it's focused in the head, focused in the nose. With the flu you're sick all over. It's a whole body disease. It's a much more serious illness. The flu in the United States today still kills about 36,000 people a year. Mostly people who already are weak for some reason or another. But it's a serious illness. And it usually slams into you with a fever. Typically the fever is in the 102 all the way up to a 106 range. A higher fever often the first symptom and you feel sick all over. You have muscle aches, you're tired, you feel out of it, you really feel crummy. And after a couple of days the respiratory symptoms start to come too. And depending where the flu virus settles you might have some sneezing, you might have some coughing. The classic symptom is a dry, hacking kind of cough, could be wheezing, could be other things, but the cough is the most common. Then it's there also for around 7 days or so and then at the end of it you may have another peak of fatigue and a second peak of fever. But usually after about a week you'll start feeling better with most cases of the flu. Colds and flus are very, very different illnesses with a few of the same symptoms.

  • Common cold

    Animation

  •  

    Common cold - Animation

    Most people have a general idea that when they start sneezing, their nose is runny, and their throat is scratchy, they're getting a cold. But what do you do about it? The common cold is something very common that people usually get on average three or more times during a year. And it is a virus that's primarily in the nose. The three main symptoms of a cold are sneezing, nasal stuffiness, and runny nose. You may have other symptoms, like having a fever of 100? or 101?, or you may have some tickling or scratchiness in the back of your throat. In fact, that may be the very first symptom, a little scratch in the back of your throat. Then after a couple days the nasal discharge tends to turn a little bit darker, maybe a little greener. Then after about a week, you're all the way better. So, what's the best way to treat a cold? The first thing you need is plenty of rest and fluids. Water, juice, and clear broth can help replace fluids you may lose during a fever. Chicken soup is another great choice, in fact, it can help relieve congestion. In short, chicken soup really is good food. Over-the-counter oral cold and cough medicines may help ease adult symptoms, but they don't treat the virus that caused your cold. In fact, so far there is no cure for the common cold. ALSO, don't give a child under 6 any cold medicines, they won't help your child, and they may have serious side effects. And antibiotics? They won't help a cold, and, if you take them too often, antibiotics can break down your body's ability to benefit from them in the future when you may really need them, such as when you get the flu. In general, remember that getting plenty of rest and fluids is the best way to help you deal with your cold symptoms. Eventually, your cold symptoms usually go away, probably in about a week. If you still feel sick after a week, see your doctor to rule out a sinus infection, allergies, or any other medical problem.

  • Throat anatomy

    Throat anatomy - illustration

    Structures of the throat include the esophagus, trachea, epiglottis and tonsils.

    Throat anatomy

    illustration

  • Cold symptoms

    Cold symptoms - illustration

    Colds are caused by a virus and can occur year-round. The common cold generally involves a runny nose, nasal congestion, and sneezing. Other symptoms include sore throat, cough, and headache. A cold usually lasts about 7 days, with perhaps a few lingering symptoms such as a cough for another week.

    Cold symptoms

    illustration

  • Antibodies

    Antibodies - illustration

    Antigens are large molecules (usually proteins) on the surface of cells, viruses, fungi, bacteria, and some non-living substances such as toxins, chemicals, drugs, and foreign particles. The immune system recognizes antigens and produces antibodies that destroy substances containing antigens.

    Antibodies

    illustration

  • Cold remedies

    Cold remedies - illustration

    Sore throat, cough, stuffy nose, sneezing, runny nose, fever, chills, and muscle aches are all symptoms associated with the common cold. Over-the-counter medicines for a cold only alleviate cold symptoms but do not shorten the duration of a cold. As always, drinking plenty of fluids and rest are most important for recovery from a cold.

    Cold remedies

    illustration

Self Care

 
 

Review Date: 2/7/2019

Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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