The Common Cold

The cold is a very common upper respiratory tract viral infection that causes symptoms such as: 

  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Cough 
  • Fever (in children; rarely in adults)

The diagnosis of a common cold is straightforward and based on classic symptoms and signs. Diagnostic tests, like a chest X-ray or nasal/throat swabs, are really only used to evaluate you for alternative diagnoses, like pneumonia or the flu.

The treatment of a common cold is aimed at easing symptoms, and often includes rest and taking an over-the-counter medication, like a decongestant and/or mild pain reliever.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long is a cold contagious?

    People are most contagious with the common cold for the first two to four days after they develop symptoms. However, it’s possible to spread the virus for up to three weeks. Children are generally more contagious than adults. Cold viruses are most often spread by droplets expelled when you sneeze or cough.

  • How long does a cold last?

    How long a cold will last is unpredictable. Most colds last between seven and 10 days. However, it’s possible for them to last anywhere from two days to two weeks. Symptoms usually peak in one to three days, although a cough may linger. If your symptoms persist for an especially long time, or they continue to get worse, see your doctor. You may have something more serious than a cold.

  • How is a cold treated?

    While there’s no cure for the common cold, you have a lot of options for managing symptoms, including:

    • Pain relievers/fever reducers (acetaminophen, ibuprofen)
    • Decongestants (pseudoephedrine, phenylephrine)
    • Nasal sprays and saline drops
    • Vitamins and herbal remedies
    • Rest

    Cough suppressants have been found to provide little relief from coughs associated with the common cold.

  • What’s best to eat when you have a cold?

    Certain foods contain vitamins and nutrients that may boost your immune system and help you fight a cold, including:

    • Vitamin C (citrus fruits, kiwi, strawberries, broccoli)
    • Vitamin E (almonds, hazelnuts, peanut butter, sunflower seeds)
    • Zinc (oysters, baked beans, cashews, raisin bran)
    • Carotenoids (carrots, kale, spinach, apricots, mango)
    • Omega-3 fatty acids (oily fish, flaxseed, chia seeds)

Key Terms

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  • National Institutes of Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine. Viral Infections. MedlinePlus. Updated October 19, 2020.