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The Common Cold: All You Need To Know

Medically reviewed by January Velasco, MD · General Practitioner

Written by Sahlee Barrer · Updated Nov 09, 2021

The Common Cold: All You Need To Know

The common cold is a viral infectious disease that infects the upper respiratory system.

It is caused by more than 200 different viruses, with rhinovirus as the most common, accounting for 10 to 40 percent of colds. Other common cold viruses include coronavirus and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), influenza, and parainfluenza. The common cold is also known as acute viral rhinopharyngitis and acute coryza. 

Knowing important facts about the common cold can help determine the proper course of care and treatment.

Colds are highly contagious and are the most common infectious disease in humans. The body is unable to build a resistance to all cold-causing viruses, which is why colds are so common and often return.

Adults get an average of two to four colds per year, while young children suffer from an average of six to 10 colds per year.

The common cold may be seasonal, but it is possible to get a cold any time of the year. 

Signs and Symptoms

Cold symptoms rarely appear suddenly and typically take a few days to appear. These symptoms include the following:

  • A runny or stuffy nose
  • Congestion
  • Sneezing
  • Watery eyes
  • Mucus draining from your nose into your throat
  • Weakened senses of taste and smell
  • Scratchy or sore throat
  • Cough

Sometimes a cold is accompanied by a mild fever, weakness, headache, aching joints, and general fatigue. Colds rarely cause additional health problems. And though they are occasionally mistaken for the flu, it’s important to note that flu symptoms are usually much worse.

Do you have the Flu or the Common Cold? Here’s How to Tell

When should I see my doctor?

Viruses like colds cannot be treated with antibiotics. And in most cases just need to run their course. Only the symptoms of the infection can be treated, and not the infection itself.

People who smoke, and have asthma or other respiratory illness may experience symptoms longer. 

Make an appointment to see your doctor if symptoms continue after seven to 10 days and if you experience the following symptoms: 

  • Unusually severe cold symptoms
  • High fever
  • Ear pain
  • Sinus-type headache
  • Cough that gets worse while other cold symptoms improve
  • Drowsiness
  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Problems in urinating
  • Chest pain
  • Flare-up of any chronic lung problem, such as asthma

These symptoms could indicate a bigger problem, such as the flu or strep throat.

Colds may also pave the way for other infections, such as sinus or ear infections, and acute bronchitis.

A common complication from colds is a sinus infection with a prolonged cough. Conditions for people with asthma, chronic bronchitis, or emphysema may worsen for many weeks even after the cold has gone away.

These important facts about the common cold can help people decide whether they need to see a doctor regarding their symptoms.


The common cold can be can be spread by air droplets transmitted via coughing and sneezing or through contact with infected surfaces. It can be contagious from 1-2 days before symptoms begin until the symptoms have stopped.

A virus can live on a surface for several days. If someone with a virus touches a computer keyboard, door handle, or spoon, for instance, people who touch those same objects may pick up the germs, and get sick if they touch their eyes, nose, or mouth afterwards.

Proper Hand Washing: All You Need To Know

Risk factors

There are certain conditions that may increase the chances of catching a cold. These include:

  • Time of year – colds can occur any time of year, but are more common during the rainy or cold season.
  • Age – children under age 6 are more likely to develop colds. The risk is even higher if they are in school and constantly interact with other children.
  • Environment – close contact and proximity to crowds, such as being on a bus, train, or plane, or attending a concert, are likely to increase encounters with rhinoviruses.
  • Compromised immune system – a chronic or recent illness makes one more likely to pick up a cold virus.
  • Smoking – people who smoke have an increased risk of catching a cold and tend to have more severe symptoms compared to non-smokers.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Since colds are common, usually minor, and with symptoms that are easy to recognize, diagnosing a cold rarely requires a trip to the doctor’s office.

A more detailed diagnosis may be required if symptoms persist after a week, since these may indicate other health conditions.

How is the common cold treated?

There is no cure for a cold but there are various ways to bring relief from cold symptoms:

  • Try nasal decongestant drops or sprays to clear up congestion in the nose. 
  • Take paracetamol, ibuprofen, or aspirin to help with pain and fever.

Over-the-counter cold medications include decongestants, antihistamines, and pain relievers, or a combination of the three.

Read the label carefully to prevent any health complications. People with high blood pressure may need the guidance of doctors when taking over-the-counter cold medicine.

Lifestyle Changes and Home Remedies

important facts about the common cold

It is quite easy to develop certain habits that can help prevent a cold. These include the following:

  • Wash hands frequently, and especially when touching someone with a cold – physical contact with someone who has a cold or touching objects that may have the virus may cause an infection. A sanitizer with 60% alcohol can be used when soap and water are not available.
  • Keep hands away from nose and eyes – to avoid facilitating the entry of cold virus particles into the body.
  • Cover nose and mouth with tissue when coughing or sneezing – cough and sneeze into a tissue or into your elbow, not your hands, to avoid spraying germs into the environment. Throw away tissue and wash hands. 
  • Avoid close contact with people who have a cold – this is particularly important in the first few days when they are most likely to spread the infection.
  • Disinfect frequently touched surfaces – these include objects such as toys, doorknobs, mobile phones, and remote controls.
  • Drink plenty of fluids – a more than adequate fluid intake will keep the lining of the nose and throat from drying out, so that mucus remains moist and easy to clear from the nose.
  • Avoid caffeinated drinks such as coffee, tea, or soda, as well as alcoholic beverages –caffeine and alcohol lead to dehydration.
  • Stop or cut back from smoking – this habit contributes to a higher risk of catching a cold.
  • Take care of your gut – eat bacteria-rich foods such as yogurt, or take a daily probiotic supplement, to keep gut bacteria community healthy and improve overall health.
  • Prevent the spread of infection – stay away or limit close contact with people who are vulnerable, such as those with asthma or other chronic lung diseases.

There are also a number of home remedies to help ease the symptoms of a cold:

  • Rest – a rest day or two can help with the feeling of lethargy that often accompanies colds. 
  • Hydration – drink plenty of fluids. Warm drinks can also soothe sore throats.
  • Food – some people lose their appetites when they have a cold but food boosts energy and provides the necessary nutrients and fluids to combat the virus.
  • Salt gargles – gargling with warm, salty water can make sore throats feel better. Saline nasal sprays can also help clear nasal congestion.
  • Warm baths – these sometimes help reduce a fever and ease mild aches and pains that are common with a cold.
  • Herbs, minerals and other products – echinacea, eucalyptus, garlic, honey, lemon, menthol, zinc, and vitamin C are also possible cold remedies.

Key Takeaways

Perhaps one of the most important facts about the common cold is that they are usually harmless and clear up without any serious consequences. Symptoms are easy to recognize and may last for a week.

However, health complications may arise, and it is best to consult a doctor if symptoms persist after seven to 10 days. Colds may be seasonal but people can catch them all year round. Highly contagious, colds can spread through droplets and physical contact.

The best way to prevent colds is to avoid catching them in the first place. Take plenty of fluids, practice good hand hygiene, try not to touch your face, and avoid close contact with people with colds. Stay hydrated, well rested, and healthy to prevent infection.


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Medically reviewed by

January Velasco, MD

General Practitioner

Written by Sahlee Barrer · Updated Nov 09, 2021

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