What Is the Common Cold?
The common cold is a type of mild upper respiratory viral infection. Common colds are the most frequent acute illness in the U.S. and the industrialized world and occur more frequently in winter and spring, but they can occur any time of year.
The "flu" (influenza), and COVID-19 also cause some symptoms that are similar to the common cold, however, the flu and COVID-19 can cause more severe symptoms and complications.
What Are Symptoms of the Common Cold?
Symptoms of a cold usually peak within 2 to 3 days of infection and may include:
- Sore throat
- Runny nose
- Stuffy nose
- Body aches
- Post-nasal drip
- Watery eyes
- Fever (most people with colds do not have fever)
A cold usually lasts about 7-10 days, but some symptoms, especially runny and stuffy nose and cough, can last for up two weeks.
What Causes the Common Cold?
More than 200 known viruses can cause the common cold, but rhinoviruses are the most common type. Adenoviruses and enteroviruses are also associated with the common cold.
Viruses that cause colds can spread from person to person through respiratory droplets released into the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. They can also be transmitted by hand-to-hand contact or by touching surfaces contaminated with the virus and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes.
Factors that can increase the risk for catching a cold include:
- Close contact with someone who has a cold
- Rhinoviruses are more common during the fall and winter
- Enteroviruses most frequently cause illness in the summer but can occur throughout the year
- Adenoviruses are usually not seasonal, but outbreaks may occur in military facilities, daycare centers, and hospital wards
- Infants and young children have more colds each year than adults
Risk factors for increased severity of cold symptoms include:
- Underlying chronic illnesses
- Congenital immunodeficiency disorders
How Is the Common Cold Diagnosed?
The common cold is diagnosed based upon the patient’s reported symptoms and a physical examination. Testing of any kind is not usually needed.
Tests may be used to rule out other infections that cause similar symptoms:
- Nasal swab testing for coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
- Rapid influenza diagnostic tests (RIDTs) or rapid molecular assays for the flu (influenza)
- Chest X-rays for lower respiratory tract infection
What Is the Treatment for the Common Cold?
There is no cure for the common cold. Antibiotics do not help treat colds caused by viruses.
Home remedies to help relieve symptoms of the common cold and get rid of a cold faster include:
- Drink plenty of fluids
- Use a clean humidifier or cool mist vaporizer
- Use saline nasal spray or drops
- Breathe in steam from a bowl of hot water or shower
- Suck on lozenges (do not give lozenges to young children as they can be a choking hazard)
- Zinc supplements taken as directed at the earliest onset of symptoms can help reduce the severity and duration of a cold for some people.
- Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines for relief of symptoms
What Are Complications of the Common Cold?
Complications of the common cold are uncommon and may include:
- Acute rhinosinusitis
- Lower respiratory tract illness
- Worsening of asthma
- Acute otitis media (middle ear infection)
How Do You Prevent the Common Cold?
To help prevent infection with the viruses that can cause the common cold:
- Wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds
- If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands
- Stay away from people who are sick
- Stay home if you are sick
- Move away from people before coughing or sneezing
- Cough or sneeze into a tissue then throw it away immediately, or cough and sneeze into your upper shirt sleeve, completely covering your mouth and nose
- Wash hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water after coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose
- Disinfect frequently touched surfaces and objects, such as doorknobs, mobile phones, and toys
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