Health Library

Common Cold

Common Cold

What is the common cold?

The common cold leads to more health care provider visits and absences from school and work than any other illness each year. It is caused by a virus and is easily spread to others. It’s not caused by cold weather.

What causes the common cold?

A cold is caused by a virus 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, the rhinoviruses and the coronaviruses 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 the sick person. 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. However, more colds do occur during the cold season (early fall to late winter). This is probably due to a variety of factors, including:

  • Schools are in session, increasing the risk for exposure to the virus
  • People stay more indoors and are in closer proximity to each other
  • Low humidity, causing 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 attributed to the fact that more people are indoors and close to each other. In addition, many cold viruses thrive in low humidity, making the nasal passages drier and more vulnerable to infection.

Children suffer more colds each year than adults, due to their immature immune systems and to the close physical contact with other children at school or day care. In fact, the average child will have between 6 to 10 colds a year. The average adult will get 2 to 4 colds a year.

What are the symptoms of the common cold?

Each person may experience symptoms differently. Common symptoms may include:

  • Stuffy, runny nose
  • Scratchy, tickly throat
  • Sneezing
  • Watering eyes
  • Low-grade fever
  • Sore throat
  • Mild hacking cough
  • Achy muscles and bones
  • Headache
  • Mild fatigue
  • Chills
  • Watery discharge from nose that thickens and turns yellow or green

Colds usually start 2 to 3 days after the virus enters the body and symptoms last from several days to several weeks.

Cold symptoms may look like other medical conditions. Always consult your health care provider for a diagnosis if your symptoms are severe.

A cold and the flu (influenza) are two different illnesses. A cold is relatively harmless and usually clears up by itself, although sometimes it may lead to a secondary infection, such as an ear infection. However, 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:

Cold symptoms

Flu symptoms

Low or no fever

High fever

Sometimes a headache

A headache very common

Stuffy, runny nose

Clear nose


Sometimes sneezing

Mild, hacking cough

Cough, often becoming severe

Slight aches and pains

Often severe aches and pains

Mild fatigue

Several weeks of fatigue

Sore throat

Sometimes a sore throat

Normal energy level or may feel sluggish

Extreme exhaustion

How is the common cold diagnosed?

Most common colds are diagnosed based on reported symptoms. However, cold symptoms may be similar to certain bacterial infections, allergies, and other medical conditions. Always consult your health care provider for a diagnosis if your symptoms are severe.

How is the common cold treated?

Currently, there is no medication available to cure or shorten the duration of the common cold. However, the following are some treatments that may help to relieve some symptoms of the cold:

  • Over-the-counter cold medications, such as decongestants and cough medicine
  • Over-the-counter antihistamines (medication that helps dry up nasal secretions and suppress coughing)
  • Rest
  • Increased fluid intake
  • Pain relievers for headache or fever
  • Warm, salt water gargling 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 are only effective when given to treat bacterial infections.

Do not give aspirin to a child who has fever. Aspirin, when given as treatment for viral illnesses in children, has been associated with Reye syndrome. This is a potentially serious or deadly disorder in children.

What are the complications of the common cold?

Colds can lead to secondary infections, including bacterial, middle ear, and sinus infections that may require treatment with antibiotics. If you have a cold along with high fever, sinus pain, significantly swollen glands, or a mucus-producing cough, see your doctor. You may need additional treatment.

Can the common cold be prevented?

The best way to avoid catching cold is to wash your hands often and avoid close contact with people who have colds. When around people with colds, do not touch your nose or eyes, because your hands may be contaminated with the virus.

If you have a cold, cough and sneeze in facial tissue and dispose of the tissue promptly. Then wash your hands right away. Also clean surfaces with disinfectants that kill viruses can halt the spread of the common cold. Research has shown that rhinoviruses may survive up to 3 hours outside of the nasal lining.

When should I call my health care provider?

If your symptoms get worse or you have new symptoms, let your health care provider know. If your symptoms don't improve within a few days, call your provider, as 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 the 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 avoiding close contact with people who have colds.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:

  • 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 names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • 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.
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