What Is a Cold?
- Colds are minor infections of the nose and throat caused by more than 200 different viruses. Rhinovirus is the most common cause, accounting for 10 to 40 percent of colds. Other common cold viruses include coronavirus and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
- A cold may last for about one week, but some colds last longer, especially in children, the elderly 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.
Common Cold Symptoms
Between one and three days after a cold virus enters the body, symptoms start developing, such as:
- Runny nose
- Weakened senses of taste and smell
- Scratchy throat
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?
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. Pregnant women should check with their healthcare provider for all medication. Aspirin should not be given to children under 18 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. Some people such as those with thyroid disease or high blood pressure should not take decongestants—check with your 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 you are 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. If you are concerned you have a bacterial complication, discuss it with your healthcare provider.
- 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. 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 soft drinks that contain caffeine. Also, avoid any drinks that contain alcohol. Caffeine and alcohol lead to dehydration, the opposite of what your body needs to recover.
- If you smoke, try to stop or cut back, at least until you are feeling better. Stay away from other smokers; inhaling their smoke will further irritate the throat and make you cough even more.
- If you must work or go to school, it won't delay recovery. Help reduce the spread of infection. Use tissues and wash your hands frequently to reduce the spread of 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 your nose. If a child has a cold, wash his or her toys after play.
- Keep fingers away from your nose and eyes to avoid infecting yourself with cold virus particles you 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 your environment so that sinuses do not dry out.
Do not inflict your cold on others! Cover your 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 acute bronchitis. A common complication is a sinus infection with a prolonged cough. If you have 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 you have this kind of cough.
Talk to a healthcare provider if you experience 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.
Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel.
Page last updated: September 21, 2022