Common colds are viral respiratory infections of your nose and throat caused by around 200 different types of viruses, most commonly a rhinovirus. The virus inflames the membranes that line your upper respiratory tract, causing temporary symptoms that usually go away in a week or two with cold remedies you can do at home.
Some cold symptoms and flu (influenza) symptoms are similar, though, so it’s important to see your primary care provider if you have concerns about yourself or your child.
We all catch colds, and not just during "cold season"
Children younger than 6 years old are at the greatest risk of catching colds, but healthy adults typically have 2 or 3 each year.
This usually happens during the fall or winter, often called “cold season,” even though cold weather or being wet and chilled have nothing to do with the common cold. There are many cold medicines to help the symptoms of rhinovirus infections.
Common cold v. the flu
Symptoms of a cold and the flu may appear similar, but they are two different illnesses.
The flu is more serious and can lead to complications, so you should see your primary provider if you have any concerns.
Symptoms and stages of the common cold
Signs and symptoms of the common cold
A cold usually starts 2 to 3 days after the virus enters your body. Common symptoms of colds can last from several days to several weeks, and can include:
- Body aches
- Low-grade fever
- Mild hacking cough
- Scratchy, tickly throat
- Sore throat
- Stuffy, runny nose
- Watering eyes
- Watery discharge from nose that thickens and turns yellow or green
Stages of the common cold
Every person experiences a cold differently, but most follow a three-stage process:
Stage 1: Days 1–3. Your body reacts to the introduction of the virus—most commonly the rhinovirus—so you will feel a scratchy throat, body aches and fatigue.
Stage 2: Days 4–7. The virus is at its peak intensity, and you now have a compromised immune system. You may have a fever, which is your body’s way of defending your immune system.
Stage 3: Days 8 to 10. Most colds end around day 10, but there are exceptions. If your symptoms worsen or your fever increases, then you should see your primary care provider.
When to see your primary care provider
When you have a cold:
You should typically recover from a common cold in a week to 10 days, or slightly longer if you smoke.
We recommend that you see your doctor if you have:
- A fever greater than 101.3 F (38.5 C), a fever lasting 5 days or more, or a fever that returns.
- Severe sore throat, headache or sinus pain.
- Shortness of breath.
When your child has a cold:
You should see your doctor if your child has:
- A fever of 100.4 F (38 C) in newborns up to 12 weeks.
- A rising fever, or a fever lasting more than 2 days in a child of any age.
- Ear infection or pain.
- Extreme fussiness.
- Lack of appetite.
- Severe symptoms, such as headache or cough.
- Symptoms that worsen or fail to improve.
- Unusual drowsiness.
Steps to get rid of your cold
There is no cure for the common cold, but fortunately it usually goes away on its own.
The following may relieve your symptoms and make you or your child as comfortable as possible until the cold goes away:
- Adjust your room’s temperature and humidity. Keep your room warm, but not overheated. A humidifier or vaporizer can moisten the air and help ease congestion and coughing.
- Drink lots of fluids. Water, juice and clear broth may help, but avoid caffeine and alcohol because they can dehydrate.
- Eat healthy. Mom’s chicken soup and other warm fluids can be soothing and can loosen congestion.
- Petroleum jelly. For raw, chapped skin around the nose and lips.
- Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines. Antihistamines, decongestants, cough medicine, pain relievers and throat lozenges help relieve symptoms. (However, do not give children aspirin.)
- Rest. Stay home to recuperate and to avoid spreading the virus.
- Saline nasal drops. To help relieve nasal congestion.
- Sore throat gargle. Try gargling warm salt water.
- Warm steam for congestion. Heat a pot of water and carefully breathe in the steam.
Antibiotics don’t work on colds.
Because colds are caused by a virus, antibiotics will not help—they only treat bacterial infections.
Preventing a common cold
Viruses that cause the common cold are very contagious. They spread through the air and close contact—for example, breathing the air after someone with a cold has coughed or sneezed, or touching a surface like a doorknob that has respiratory viruses on it, then touching your eyes, mouth or nose.
Reducing your risk
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you can help reduce your risk of getting a cold with these steps:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water. Wash for 20 seconds at a time and help young children do the same. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Viruses that cause colds can live on your hands, and regular hand washing can help protect you from getting sick.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands. Viruses that cause colds can enter your body this way and make you sick.
- Stay away from people who are sick. Sick people can spread viruses that cause the common cold through close contact with others.
If you have a cold already
- If you already have a cold, follow these tips to help prevent spreading it:
- Stay at home while you are sick and keep children out of school or day care while they are sick.
- Avoid close contact with others, such as hugging, kissing or shaking hands.
- Move away from people before coughing or sneezing.
- Cough and sneeze into a tissue then throw it away, or cough and sneeze into your upper shirt sleeve, completely covering your mouth and nose.
- Wash your hands after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose.
- Disinfect frequently touched surfaces and objects, such as toys and doorknobs.
- Consider wearing a mask while having cold symptoms.
FAQs about the common cold
The most common symptoms of a cold include a runny or stuffy nose, sore throat, coughing, sneezing, headache, fatigue, and body aches.
On average, the common cold usually lasts for about 7-10 days. Upon exposure to the virus, symptoms usually peak between 1-3 days, and in some cases mild symptoms can linger for up to 2-3 weeks.
Yes, the common cold is contagious, and can easily spread from person to person.
Colds are highly contagious and can be spread through airborne droplets from sneezing or coughing, as well as through contact with surfaces that contain the virus. The virus enters your body through your mouth, nose, or eyes.
While some of the symptoms of cold and flu are similar, the flu is caused by the influenza virus and typically causes fever and chills. The flu can lead to more potentially serious health complications than the common cold.
It’s important to rest and stay hydrated when you have a cold. You can also take over-the-counter medications to reduce body aches, congestion and cough. Drinking hot decaffeinated tea with honey or lemon can also soothe your throat.
Yes, there are several home remedies that can help alleviate the symptoms of the common cold. These include drinking plenty of fluids such as water and decaffeinated teas, gargling with warm saltwater, inhaling steam, or using a saline nose spray. Eating chicken soup may also help reduce congestion.
Colds can be prevented by washing your hands often, avoiding touching your eyes or nose, staying away from people who are sick, and getting plenty of rest. Additionally, you can also consider boosting your immune system by taking vitamin C supplements or by getting the flu shot every year.
While there are over 200 different viruses that can cause the common cold, the most common source is from the rhinovirus.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Common Cold (https://www.cdc.gov/antibiotic-use/colds.html)
National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI): National Library of Medicine. Common cold (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3215607/)
American Lung Association. Facts About the Common Cold (https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/influenza/facts-about-the-common-cold)