Common Cold

What is the common cold?

The common cold leads to more healthcare provider visits and absences from school and work than any other illness each year. It is caused by any one of several viruses and is easily spread to others. It’s not caused by cold weather or getting wet.

What causes the common cold?

A cold is caused by any one of several viruses 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 causes 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, in cold, dry weather, the nasal passages become 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?

Common cold 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 healthcare 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

Sneezing

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 healthcare provider for a diagnosis if your symptoms are severe.