An Overview of the Common Cold

The cold is a very common upper respiratory tract viral infection that causes variable symptoms, such as nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat, fatigue, and cough. While fever may occur in children with a cold, it's rare 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 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 a mild pain reliever.

When you get a cold, symptoms can vary and the duration of your illness is unpredictable. Most colds last between 7 and 10 days. However, they can last anywhere from 2 days to 2 weeks.

Tips to Prevent Spreading a Cold
Verywell / Kelly Miller

Symptoms

Generally speaking, common cold symptoms begin about one to three days after the virus enters the body.

When you get a cold, you will likely have one or more of the symptoms listed below:

Congestion

This could be a stuffy or runny nose, or a "full" feeling in the head. Sneezing is also common with colds. When you are congested, you typically can't breathe very well through your nose.

Cough

Coughs associated with the common cold are generally dry. If you are coughing up thick, colored mucus and/or it is painful to cough, you should contact your doctor.

Watery Eyes

Eyes could be runny, or you may just feel like you have more tears than usual. 

Itching Eyes, Nose, or Throat

Itchiness or a feeling like you need to scratch inside your nose, throat, and eyes is common with a cold. Keep in mind, a scratchy eyes/throat/nose could also be a sign of allergies. Be sure to talk to your healthcare provider if it lasts longer than about two weeks

Headache

Headaches are very common when you have a cold. Congestion puts pressure on your sinuses, causing your head to hurt.

Muscle Aches

Muscle aches (called myalgias) felt "all over" may occur with the common cold. Unlike with the flu, though, the achiness associated with the common cold is generally mild, so you can usually get on with your daily activities.

Fatigue or Feeling Tired

You may feel like you have not had enough sleep or you just don't have the energy to do everyday activities. Exhaustion and fatigue is common with a cold but typically it isn't so severe that you can't function. 

Fever

Fever is rare in adults with a cold but is more common in children.

Differential Diagnosis

The symptoms of the common cold can overlap with many other conditions, such as the flu, sinus or ear infection, and allergies. If your symptoms seem especially severe or persistent, be sure to see your doctor for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.

Cause

The common cold is caused by a virus, of which there are over 200 potential ones. Rhinovirus causes most colds, but they can also be caused by coronavirus, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and parainfluenza, to name a few.

Contrary to popular belief and "old wives' tales," colds are not directly caused by wet hair or cold weather. Instead, viruses seem to thrive and fester when your body is cooler. Even chilled feet can increase a person's risk of getting a cold. But, again, there is no direct link between cold temperatures and contracting the cold—only germs can cause the cold.

Diagnosis

If you go to see your doctor with symptoms of a cold, your doctor will make the diagnosis through a medical history and physical examination. Any other tests ordered are generally used to rule out alternative diagnoses or cold-related complications, like a sinus or ear infection, asthma exacerbation, or pneumonia.

Medical History and Physical Examination

Besides reviewing your symptoms and their severity and duration, your doctor will perform an exam of your ears, sinuses, throat, nose, and lungs.

Classic findings on the physical exam of a person with the common cold include:

  • Congestion and mucosal swelling within the nose
  • Eye and throat redness
  • Clear lungs

Other Tests

To test for alternative diagnoses, various other tests may be ordered. For example, if your lung exam suggests possible pneumonia, your doctor will order a chest X-ray. If your doctor is concerned for the flu (influenza), a rapid flu test may be ordered.

When to See a Doctor

Most people do not need to see a doctor when they have a cold, but there are certain instances when it may be necessary.

If you have been sick for several days or your symptoms are severe or worrisome (for example, you cannot keep fluids down because your throat is to sore or you are experiencing a productive cough with a fever), be to seek medical attention.

Moreover, if you or your child has signs of trouble breathing, like wheezing, uncontrollable coughing, or retracting, seek medical attention right away.

Treatment

While there are no medications that will "cure" a cold, there are plenty of things you can do to soothe your symptoms.

Pain Relievers/Fever Reducers

Even if you do not have a fever, fever-reducing medications like Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Motrin (ibuprofen) can help with headaches, sore throat, and the general feeling of discomfort and achiness you have when you are sick.

It's important to note that children should never be given aspirin due to the risk of developing Reye's Syndrome, a potentially fatal condition.

Decongestants/Antihistamines

Decongestants are a type of medicine that can help by temporarily relieving that stuffy, congested feeling in your nose and sinuses. Antihistamines, such as Claritin (loratadine), and Zyrtec (cetirizine), may help with an itching and runny nose.

Experts have found that the combination of an antihistamine and decongestant is more likely to ease the symptoms of a common cold than either medication alone.

Anticholinergic Nasal Sprays

Atrovent administered through the nose (called intranasal ipratropium) may improve runny nose and sneezing. However, there is a risk of side effects (nasal dryness and nosebleeds).

Cough Suppressants

Despite what many believe, over-the-counter cough suppressants, such as Mucinex (guaifenesin) or Robitussin (dextromethorphan), only provide mild (if any) benefit to reducing the cough associated with a common cold.

If your child has a cold, it's important to discuss any medication use with their pediatrician. Keep in mind too, over-the-counter cough and cold medication should not be used in children younger than four years of age.

Natural and Herbal Remedies

There are a lot of products on the market that fall under this category and claim to help with cold symptoms. While, for some of these remedies, the research backing up their effectiveness is scant, they may be worth a try on an individual basis.

Andrographis Paniculata

Research suggests that Andrographis paniculata extract may be effective in easing the symptoms of the common cold.

Pelargonium sidoides

Liquid solutions prepared from the roots of Perlargonium sidoides (geranium) may also reduce the duration and severity of cold symptoms. 

Honey

For children, honey has been found to ease nighttime cough and improve sleep quality. 

It's important to not give children younger than one year honey, due to the risk of botulism.

Vitamin C

The use of vitamin C to prevent or treat a cold has been researched probably more than any other natural remedy out there. Although some studies show beneficial results, others do not. Taking vitamin C is unlikely to be harmful to most people, but high doses can cause diarrhea, nausea, or kidney stones.

Echinacea

Echinacea has been used for years to prevent and treat the common cold. Unfortunately, the studies that have been conducted have not shown any true benefit. 

Elderberry

The use of elderberry supplements to help with cold symptoms has been inconclusive. Some small studies have shown benefits, while others have not. More research is needed on this supplement to know if it could actually help.

Non-Medication Options

In addition to taking OTC products or natural remedies, there are things you can do to relieve your symptoms that involve no medicine or supplements at all.

Some of these remedies include:

  • Saline Drops or Spray: Saline drops or spray can help loosen the mucus in your nose and nasal passages to make it easier to drain or expel. This is particularly useful in infants and young children who cannot tolerate a sinus rinse.
  • Cool Mist Humidifier: Colds are most common during cold winter months when the air is drier and we often have heaters running in our homes, which dries the air out even more. Using a humidifier can help counteract the dry air and make you more comfortable, especially when you are sleeping.
  • Drink More Water: Staying hydrated is essential when you are sick, so mucus won't be as thick and your respiratory system will not be so dry.
  • Sleep: Getting enough sleep is always important, but it's even more important when you are sick. Our bodies recover faster when we rest and allow our immune system to do its job.

Prevention

Cold viruses concentrate in your nose and so are most often spread by droplets when you sneeze, cough, or blow your nose. The virus lives in these droplets and can live on surfaces outside of the body for up to three hours.

People are most contagious with the common cold for the first 3 to 4 days after the symptoms appear but can spread the virus for up to 3 weeks. Children tend to be more contagious than adults.

Since there is no vaccine or cure for the common cold, your best bet really is prevention. While this is not feasible 100 percent of the time, there are many things you can do to reduce your chances of getting sick, such as:

Wash Your Hands

Washing your hands properly and frequently is by far the most important thing you can do to prevent the spread of illness. If you don't have access to soap and water, use hand sanitizer. As long as it contains more than 60 percent alcohol, it will effectively kill most germs, including cold viruses. However, if your hands are visibly soiled (you can see the dirt, etc), then washing with soap and water is essential.

Cover Your Cough

If you have a cough, cover your mouth with a tissue or the inside of your elbow, as your germs can fly as far as six feet away and make others around you sick.

Eat Right, Exercise, Get Enough Sleep

We hear professionals say this all the time and know it's easier said than done. But it truly is the best way to keep your body healthy. If you take care of yourself, your immune system has the best opportunity to function like it should and protect you from as many illnesses as possible.

Other preventive "cold" tips include:

  • Avoid close contact with people who have a cold
  • Disinfect and wipe down contaminated objects, toys, and surfaces
  • Avoid touching your face, especially your eyes, nose, and mouth

A Word From Verywell

Colds are the most common illness in the world, affecting billions of people each year. Most adults get an average of two colds per year and children can get as many as 12. Fortunately, they are rarely serious or debilitating. Take care of yourself when you get a cold and you should be feeling like yourself again within about a week.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

  1. American Lung Association. (2019). Facts About The Common Cold.

  2. Eccles R. Acute cooling of the body surface and the common cold. Rhinology. 2002 Sep;40(3):109-14.


  3. Johnson C, Eccles R. Acute cooling of the feet and the onset of common cold symptoms. Fam Pract. 2005 Dec;22(6):608-13.

  4. Fashner J, Ericson K, Werner S. Treatment of the Common Cold in Children and Adults. Am Fam Physician. 2012 Jul 15;86(2):153-59.

  5. AlBalawi ZH, Othman SS, Alfaleh J. Intranasal ipratropium bromide for the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Jun 19;(6):CD008231. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD008231.pub3

  6. FDA. (2018). Use Caution When Giving Cough and Cold Products to Kids.


  7. Poolsup N, Suthisisang C, Prathanturarug S, Asawamekin A, Chanchaereon U. Andrographis paniculata in the symptomatic treatment of uncomplicated upper respiratory tract infection: systematic review of randomized controlled trials. J Clin Pharm Ther. 2004 Feb;29(1):37-45.

  8. Lizogub VG, Riley DS, Heger M. Efficacy of a pelargonium sidoides preparation in patients with the common cold: a randomized, double blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Explore (NY). 2007 Nov-Dec;3(6):573-84.


  9. Paul IM, Beiler J, McMonagle A, Shaffer ML, Duda L, Berlin CM Jr. Effect of honey, dextromethorphan, and no treatment on nocturnal cough and sleep quality for coughing children and their parents. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2007 Dec;161(12):1140-6.


  10. Hemila H, Chalker E. Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Jan 31;(1):CD000980. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD000980.pub4

  11. Karsch-Volk M, Barrett B, Kiefer D, Bauer R, Ardjomand-Woelkart K, Linde K. Echinacea for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2014 Feb 20;(2):CD000530. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD000530.pub3

Additional Reading

  • Sexton DJ, McClain MT. (2019). The common cold in adults: Treatment and prevention. Hirsch MS, Aronson MD, eds. UpToDate. Waltham, MA: UpToDate Inc.