What Is a Head Cold?

Causing stuffy nose, sore throat, sneezing, and sometimes cough, the symptoms of a head cold, also known as common cold, are familiar to most. Typically resolving within 10 days, there’s no denying that this illness can significantly impact daily life.

Head colds are the most common viral infection—on average, adults have two to three colds a year, with children likely to experience even more. They generally aren’t dangerous, and complications are rare. Symptom management and home remedies resolve most cases.

This article provides a quick overview of this viral infection, discussing its symptoms, causes, potential complications, treatments, as well as what you can do at home to manage it.

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What Is a Head Cold?

Head colds are airborne viral infections of the upper respiratory tract, affecting the sinuses, ears, and throat. Highly contagious, they arise due to infection by any of over 200 different types of viruses and are the most common reason for hospital visits in the U.S. People of all ages are prone to catching colds, though children, older adults, and those with compromised immunity are more likely to experience them.    

Cold vs. Influenza

Though the two are often confused, head colds are not the same as influenza, or flu, another kind of viral infection. The flu has a faster onset. Additionally, while it causes cough (like a head cold), it is also associated with fever, body aches, and fatigue.

Symptoms

Since head colds affect the respiratory system, the symptoms are primarily felt there. Likely familiar to you, the most common of these are:

  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Sinus pressure
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Headaches

All told, these symptoms last anywhere from seven to 10 days; however, those with pre-existing conditions of the lungs, asthma, or weakened immune systems may develop complications that require more serious treatment.

Head Cold vs COVID-19 Omicron Variant

The COVID-19 omicron variant is known to cause similar symptoms to a head cold, including a running nose, sore throat, sneezing, and cough. However, omicron may also cause loss of taste or smell, fever, and severe headaches.

Learn more: Does the Omicron COVID Variant Cause Different Symptoms?

Causes of a Cold

Over 200 kinds of viruses can cause colds; however, rhinovirus infection represents about 10 to 40% of cases. Other more commonly seen viruses that cause symptoms are certain coronaviruses (a family of viruses that includes COVID-19) and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

Head colds occur when these viruses access the body via mucus membranes, the soft lining of your nostrils, your eyes, or the mouth. This occurs by breathing in droplets emitted by an infected person when they cough or exhale. Alternately, viruses on surfaces or on others’ skin can be transported to the mouth or eye on the skin via the hands.

Complications

While most colds resolve on their own—usually within two to 10 days—some experience complications. As your body fights off this virus, your immune system can take a hit, paving the way for bacterial infection. This can cause:

  • Sinus infection (often with prolonged cough)
  • Ear infection
  • Acute bronchitis
  • Asthma

These complications are more likely to occur in several different populations:

Treating a Head Cold

While there’s no outright cure for colds, treatment approaches focus on managing symptoms as your body’s natural immunity fights off the infection. A number of medications for this illness, available over the counter and prescribed, help ease the burden of this condition:

  • Pain relievers: Two classes of drugs, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) (including ibuprofen and others) and Tylenol (acetaminophen). These are available over the counter or in prescribed strengths.  
  • Nasal decongestants: A range of drugs help relieve sinus pressure and congestion, including Sudafed (pseudoephedrine) and Sudafed PE (phenylephrine).  
  • Cough suppressants: Robitussin (dextromethorphan) and codeine effectively provide relief from coughing fits associated with head colds.  
  • Antihistamines: Also used to treat allergies, antihistamines like Benadryl (diphenhydramine) and Zyrtec (cetirizine) can also provide symptom relief.
  • Expectorants: This class of drugs, such as Mucinex (guaifenesin), works to loosen mucus in the lungs, which can help relieve symptoms.

While these medications can ease the symptoms, it’s important to note that they won’t make the cold resolve any quicker.

Antibiotics

Since head colds arise from viruses rather than bacteria, antibiotics (z-pack, tetracycline, and others) will not work against them. Antibiotics are reserved only for bacterial infections, so they may be prescribed to treat complications, such as ear infections and bronchitis.

Home Remedies

Alongside medications, a number of at home remedies and approaches can help further manage symptoms. Doctors recommend taking on head colds by:

  • Getting plenty of rest
  • Staying home from work or school/ensuring that children do so
  • Drinking plenty of fluids, especially hot liquids
  • Quitting smoking or not smoking while sick
  • Avoiding alcohol and caffeine  

While certain supplements, such as vitamin C and the herb echinacea may be marketed for cold prevention, there isn’t much evidence supporting this use. However, researchers have found that zinc supplements may help reduce the duration of colds.

Prevention

The most effective way to avoid cold symptoms, of course, is ensuring that you never catch this illness in the first place. Not only that, but by avoiding infection, you’ll reduce the chances of spreading this virus to those around you. The following preventative steps are frequently recommended:

  • Handwashing: Wash your hands thoroughly and regularly, especially if you suspect contact with an infected person. Using hand sanitizer can also help.
  • Avoid close contact: Don’t hug, touch, or stay in close range of someone with a cold, especially if they’ve recently developed symptoms.
  • Don’t touch your face: Because cold viruses enter the body via the mucus membranes of the nose, eyes, and mouth, avoid touching your face.
  • Keep surfaces clean: Since viruses can survive on surfaces, keep those that are often touched, such as table-tops, counters, and doorknobs clean with disinfecting soap.
  • Lifestyle changes: Healthy habits can keep your immune system strong. Exercise regularly, eat well, and make sure you get enough sleep.
  • Stay home: If you do get sick, prevent spreading your cold to others by staying home from work or school.  

When to See a Healthcare Provider

While most head colds resolve on their own with rest and symptom management, there are times when medical help is needed. Call your doctor if you or your child experiences:

  • High fever
  • Chest pains
  • Pain in your ear or ears
  • Asthma flares up
  • Symptoms persist beyond 10 days

Additionally, parents of sick children or infants should seek medical help in the following cases:

  • Appetite loss
  • More crying than usual
  • Pain in the ear or stomach
  • Wheezing
  • Increased fatigue

Summary

Head cold, also known as common cold, is the most frequently occurring viral infection. This illness causes sore throat, sinus congestion, sneezing, coughing, and headache and generally resolves within 10 days.

Treatments focus on symptom management, with pain relievers, nasal decongestants, cough suppressants, and expectorants among the medications indicated. Getting plenty of rest and drinking fluids, among other lifestyle measures, round out the management of colds.

Prevention of this disease involves avoiding contact with infected people, hand washing and sanitizing, keeping surfaces clean, and boosting your immunity.

A Word From Verywell

Just because head colds are common, doesn’t mean they can’t be debilitating. The keys to managing this illness is to do what you can to ease symptoms, to get plenty of rest and fluids, and to adopt habits to prevent its spread. Furthermore, being mindful about how the viruses that cause colds spread—through the air and via surfaces you touch—will further allow you to steer clear of the condition. The more you know about this condition and what you can do about it, the better off you’ll be.   

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do I get rid of a head cold?

    Management of a cold generally involves symptom management, and there’s no therapy that will cure it. In most cases, the body’s natural immunity will resolve the issue within 10 days. Keys to recovery include getting plenty of rest, staying home from work or school, drinking fluids, and avoiding alcohol, caffeine and smoking.

  • What do I take for a head cold?

    While drugs can’t cure colds, they can help manage symptoms and ease their burden. Commonly indicated medications include:

    • Pain relievers (Motrin, Advil, Ibuprofen, and Tylenol, among others)
    • Nasal decongestants (Sudafed, Sudafed PE)
    • Cough suppressants (Robitussin, codeine)
    • Antihistamines (Benadryl, Zyrtec)
    • Expectorants (Mucinex, Robitussin Chest Congestion)
  • How long is a head cold contagious?

    Head colds become contagious one to two days before the onset of symptoms. Though it can vary, they generally remain so throughout the course of the illness. Because people may be carriers without knowing it, this virus spreads easily.

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5 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.
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