Facts About the Common Cold

What is a Cold?

  • Colds are minor infections of the nose and throat caused by several different viruses.
  •  A cold may last for about one week, but some colds last longer, especially in children, elderly people, and those in poor health.
  •  In the United States, colds account for more visits to the doctor than any other condition.
  •  Adults get an average of two to four colds per year, mostly between September and May.
  •  Young children suffer from an average of six to eight colds per year.
  •  Colds are highly contagious. They most often spread when droplets of fluid that contain a cold virus are transferred by touch. These droplets may also be inhaled.

Cold Symptoms

Between one and three days after a cold virus enters the body, symptoms start developing, such as:

  • runny nose
  • congestion
  • sneezing
  • weakened senses of taste and smell
  • scratchy throat
  • cough

Infants and young children are more likely than adults and teens to develop a fever. Smokers usually have more severe symptoms than non-smokers.

What Can Be Done If You Catch a Cold?

Symptom Relief
Over-the-counter medications can provide temporary relief of symptoms and should be used as soon as you feel a cold coming on.

Studies have shown that acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen or any other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) used to relieve aches and pains may worsen asthma and/or peptic ulcers. People with asthma should not take these medications unless recommended by their healthcare provider. Aspirin should not be given to children under eighteen years old because it may play a role in causing Reye's Syndrome, a rare but severe liver and central nervous system condition. Be sure to discuss all medication choices with a healthcare provider.

Congestion, cough and nasal discharge may be treated with a decongestant, antihistamine or a combination of the two. Certain people such as those with thyroid disease or high blood pressure should not take decongestants — check with a healthcare provider to determine what is best. Many over-the-counter cold remedies contain both of these ingredients.

REMEMBER to follow dosage instructions on all product labels and know what is in the medication one is taking. Many combination products — both prescription and over-the-counter — contain acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or aspirin. It is important to read the ingredients on each product label to avoid accidentally taking too much of these.

There are no antiviral medications available for treating the common cold. Antibiotics are not useful for treating a cold, and should only be taken to treat bacterial complications that arise from it.

Other Remedies
Herbs, minerals and other products such as echinacea, eucalyptus, garlic, honey, lemon, menthol, zinc and vitamin C have received a lot of publicity as cold remedies. However, none of these claims are solidly supported by scientific studies.

Adequate liquid intake is recommended. Eight glasses of water and/or juice per day are recommended. This will help keep the lining of the nose and throat from drying out, so that mucus remains moist and easy to clear from the nose.

Avoid coffee, tea or cola drinks that contain caffeine. Also avoid any drinks that contain alcohol. Caffeine and alcohol lead to dehydration, the opposite of what one wants.

If a person smokes, he or she should stop! Stay away from other smokers; inhaling their smoke will further irritate the throat and make one cough even more.

If one must work or go to school, it won't delay recovery. But be a good citizen. Use tissues and wash ones hands frequently to reduce the spread of ones cold germs to others.

What Can You Do to Prevent a Cold?

Colds are extremely difficult to prevent entirely. The following suggestions may help:

  •  Avoid close contact with people who have a cold, especially during the first few days when they are most likely to spread the infection.
  •  Wash hands after touching someone who has a cold, after touching an object they have touched, and after blowing ones nose. If a child has a cold, wash his or her toys after play.
  •  Keep fingers away from ones nose and eyes to avoid infecting oneself with cold virus particles that may have been picked up.
  •  Put up a second hand towel in the bathroom for healthy people to use.
  • Keep an eye on the humidity of one's environment so that sinuses do not dry out.

Do not inflict one's cold on others! Cover ones nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing, then throw the tissue away and wash hands. Also, stay away from people who are most vulnerable, including anyone who has asthma or another chronic lung disease, or at least try to limit close contact.

Until recently, it was thought that a single vaccine could not be developed for the different cold viruses. New research approaches may enable the development of a single vaccine for most types of colds.

Complications of a Cold


Colds get better within a few days to weeks, whether or not a person takes medication. However, a cold virus can pave the way for other infections to invade the body, including sinus or ear infections and bronchitis. A common complication is a sinus infection with a prolonged cough. If one has asthma, chronic bronchitis, or emphysema, the symptoms from those conditions may be worsened for many weeks even after the cold has gone away.

Post-infectious cough, usually without phlegm, may last for weeks to months after the cold goes away and may keep a person up at night. This cough has been associated with asthma-like symptoms, and can be treated with asthma medications. Consult a healthcare provider if one has this kind of cough.

Talk to a health care provider if one experiences any of the following:

  • unusually severe cold symptoms;
  • high fever;
  • ear pain;
  • sinus type headache;
  • cough that gets worse while other cold symptoms improve; or
  • flare-up of any chronic lung problem, such as asthma.