What Is a Cold?

The common cold is a respiratory viral infection. It is one of the most common illnesses, with adults contracting around two to three colds yearly—kids contract even more.

A cold is generally a mild infection that resolves in a few weeks with rest and plenty of fluids. However, a cold can become more serious, developing into pneumonia or bronchitis. This is more common in people with underlying health conditions, like asthma.

This article explains a common cold's symptoms, treatment, and possible complications.

An older woman sitting on a couch with a cup of broth

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Symptoms of a Cold

As a respiratory virus, colds have symptoms that affect your nasal passages, lungs, and throat. Common cold symptoms include:

Most people do not experience a fever with a cold, although it is possible to have one. More than 200 viruses cause a cold, but rhinovirus is the most common culprit.

Cold vs. Flu vs. COVID-19

Flu (caused by the influenza virus) and COVID-19 share some symptoms with common colds that are caused by other viruses, making it difficult to diagnose the illness. However, some signs can distinguish one from another.

Headaches, body aches, fatigue, breathing difficulties, vomiting, or diarrhea indicate that you may be experiencing the flu or COVID-19 instead of a cold. In addition, if you also have a loss of taste or smell, you may have a COVID-19 infection.

How Long Does a Cold Last?

Colds generally last for one to two weeks. Symptoms usually worsen on the second and third day, then gradually improve.

How long your cold lasts depends on your overall health and if you have underlying health conditions or a weakened immune system. These factors could make the illness last longer or put you at a higher risk for complications.

How to Get Over a Cold Quickly

While colds can last up to two weeks, there are some things you can do to get rid of it or help yourself feel better. Unfortunately, antibiotics, which fight bacterial infections, don't help a cold because viruses cause colds. In addition, there is no cure; your cold must run its course.

The primary treatment for colds is to get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids. Some other things may help you feel more comfortable, including:

  • Using a humidifier helps keep the air moist, which can help with congestion and drainage. Sitting in a steamy shower can also do the trick.
  • Gargling warm salt water soothes sore throats. You may also find relief from cough drops, Popsicles, warm soups, and other soft foods.
  • Saline nasal sprays work to loosen nasal mucus. However, some people prefer to use a neti pot to irrigate the nasal passages.
  • OTC pain relievers, like Advil (ibuprofen), Aleve (naproxen), or Tylenol (acetaminophen), and cold medications can reduce symptoms, but read labels carefully. Some cold medicines contain pain relievers, so do not exceed recommended dosages.

Over-the-Counter (OTC) Cold Medicine and Kids

Be especially careful with OTC children's cold medicines. Experts do not recommend them for kids under age 2 because they can cause serious, life-threatening side effects. Avoid these medicines until kids are older than 4.

Instead, keep kids hydrated and use humidifiers and saline nose drops. You can use acetaminophen and ibuprofen for aches and fevers with guidance on dosage from a healthcare provider.

How Long Is a Cold Contagious?

Colds are very contagious. They are transmitted through the air and close, personal contact. Colds are most contagious during the first few days of symptoms.

The best way to avoid spreading your cold to others is to avoid spending time near people when you are sick, especially people with compromised immune systems and lung diseases like asthma. Cover your nose and mouth with your elbow or a tissue when you cough or sneeze, and wash your hands frequently.

Do You Need to See a Healthcare Provider for a Cold?

Colds are often mild, and most people do not require medical attention for a cold; they usually resolve quickly and without complications. However, sometimes colds can develop into something more serious.

If you or your child experiences the following, you should see a healthcare provider:

  • Trouble breathing or rapid breathing
  • Symptoms of dehydration (feeling thirsty, having a dry nose and mouth, dizziness, headache, confusion)
  • Fever lasting more than four days
  • Symptoms not improving after 10 days
  • Symptoms that improve but then get worse
  • Worsening of chronic medical conditions

In addition, if you have certain underlying medical conditions predisposing you to complications, like asthma or lung disease, or are immunocompromised, you should take extra care to watch for early signs of complications and be in touch with a healthcare provider.

Secondary Complications From a Cold

Cold viruses can pave the way for other infections to enter the body. Complications associated with the common cold include:

Complications from a cold can happen to anyone, but they are more common in older people, children, people with lung disease, and those who are immunocompromised.

How to Prevent a Cold

While you can't always prevent catching a cold, there are some ways to lessen the chances. Prevention strategies include:

  • Avoiding close contact with people who are sick
  • Washing your hands frequently
  • Covering your mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing
  • Avoiding touching your face, especially your eyes, nose, and mouth
  • Avoiding smoking and secondhand smoke

There is no vaccine for the common cold. Since so many viruses can cause the common cold and strains change frequently, developing a vaccine for the cold is difficult.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. MedlinePlus. Common cold.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common cold.

  3. National Institute on Aging. Is it a cold, the flu, or COVID-19?.

  4. American Lung Association. Facts about the common cold.

  5. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Should you give kids medicine for coughs and colds?.

  6. Passioti M, Maggina P, Megremis S, Papadopoulos NG. The common cold: potential for future prevention or cureCurr Allergy Asthma Rep. 2014;14(2):413. doi:10.1007/s11882-013-0413-5

By Kathi Valeii
As a freelance writer, Kathi has experience writing both reported features and essays for national publications on the topics of healthcare, advocacy, and education. The bulk of her work centers on parenting, education, health, and social justice.