What is the common cold?
The common cold leads to more healthcare provider visits and absences from school and work than any other illness each year. It is caused by any one of several viruses and is easily spread to others. It's not caused by cold weather or getting wet.
What causes the common cold?
A cold is caused by any one of several viruses that causes inflammation of the membranes that line the nose and throat. It can result from any one of more than 200 different viruses. But rhinoviruses cause most colds.
The common cold is very easily spread to others. It's often spread through airborne droplets that are coughed or sneezed into the air by someone who is sick. The droplets are then inhaled by another person. Colds can also be spread when a sick person touches you or a surface (like a doorknob) that you then touch.
Contrary to popular belief, cold weather or being chilled doesn't cause a cold. But more colds do occur during the cold season. This is early fall to late winter. This is probably because of a variety of factors, including:
- Schools are in session, increasing the risk for exposure to the virus
- People stay indoors and are in closer contact with each other
- The air during cold season has low humidity. This causes dry nasal passages, which are more susceptible to cold viruses.
Who is at risk for the common cold?
Everyone is at risk for the common cold. People are most likely to have colds during fall and winter, starting in late August or early September until March or April. The increased incidence of colds during the cold season may be linked to the fact that more people are indoors and close to each other. Also, in cold, dry weather, the nasal passages become drier and more vulnerable to infection.
Children have more colds each year than adults. This is because a child's immune system is immature. They are also in close physical contact with other children at school or daycare. The average adult will get 2 to 3 colds a year, and children get even more.
What are the symptoms of the common cold?
Common cold symptoms may include:
- Stuffy, runny nose
- Mucus dripping down your throat (postnasal drip)
- Scratchy, tickly throat
- Watery eyes
- Low-grade fever
- Sore throat
- Mild hacking cough
- Achy muscles and bones
- Mild fatigue
- Watery discharge from nose that thickens and turns yellow or green
Colds usually start 2 to 3 days after the virus enters the body. Symptoms last from several days to several weeks.
A cold and the flu (influenza) are two different illnesses. A cold is relatively harmless and usually clears up by itself. Sometimes it may lead to a secondary infection, such as an ear infection. But the flu can lead to complications, such as pneumonia and even death. What may seem like a cold could be the flu. Be aware of these differences:
Low or no fever
Sometimes a headache
A headache very common
Stuffy, runny nose
Mild, hacking cough
Cough, often becoming severe
Slight aches and pains
Often severe aches and pains
Several weeks of fatigue
Sometimes a sore throat
Normal energy level or may feel sluggish
How is the common cold diagnosed?
Most common colds are diagnosed based on reported symptoms. But cold symptoms may be similar to certain bacterial infections, allergies, and other health conditions. Always consult your healthcare provider for a diagnosis if your symptoms are severe.
How is the common cold treated?
Currently, there is no medicine available to cure or shorten the length of the common cold. But the following are some treatments that may help to ease some symptoms:
- Over-the-counter cold medicines, such as decongestants and cough medicine
- Over-the-counter antihistamines. These are medicines that help dry up nasal secretions and suppress coughing.
- Drinking more fluids
- Pain relievers for headache or fever
- Gargling warm salt water for sore throat
- Petroleum jelly for raw, chapped skin around the nose and lips
- Warm steam for congestion
Because colds are caused by viruses, antibiotics don't work. Antibiotics only work when used to treat bacterial infections.
Don't give aspirin to a child who has a fever. Aspirin has been linked to Reye syndrome when given as treatment for viral illnesses in children. This is a potentially serious or deadly disorder in children.
What are possible complications of the common cold?
Colds can lead to secondary infections. These include bacterial, middle ear, and sinus infections that may need to be treated with antibiotics. If you have a cold along with high fever, sinus pain, swollen glands, or a mucus-producing cough, see your healthcare provider. You may need more treatment.
Can the common cold be prevented?
The best way to avoid catching a cold is to wash your hands often and stay away from people who have colds. When you are around people with colds, don't touch your nose or eyes. Your hands may be contaminated with the virus.
If you have a cold, cough and sneeze in facial tissue and dispose of the tissue right away. Then wash your hands right away. Also, cleaning surfaces with disinfectants that kill viruses can halt the spread of the common cold. Rhinoviruses may survive up to 3 hours outside of the nasal lining.
When should I call my healthcare provider?
Let your healthcare provider know if your symptoms get worse or you have new symptoms. If your symptoms don't get better in a few days, call your provider. You could have another type of infection.
Key points about the common cold
A cold is caused by a virus that causes inflammation of the membranes that line the nose and throat.
The common cold is very easily spread to others. It's often spread through airborne droplets that are coughed or sneezed into the air by a sick person. The droplets are then inhaled by another person.
Symptoms may include a stuffy, runny nose, scratchy, tickly throat, sneezing, watery eyes, and a low-grade fever.
Treatment to reduce symptoms includes getting rest and drinking plenty of fluids.
Because colds are caused by viruses, treatment with antibiotics won't work.
The best prevention for the common cold is frequent hand washing and staying away from people who have colds.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.