Common Cold

Why do we feel so bad when we come down with the common cold? Could it be the myriad symptoms it produces—or the lack of a quick fix? The best you can hope for is a combo of self-care strategies to ease your discomfort while you ride out your congestion.

Have a runny or stuffy nose, scratchy throat, and general sense of being slightly under the weather? You may have a viral infection of your upper respiratory tract—aka the common cold. Despite most of us getting two to three colds each year, there's no cure. But taking care of yourself—and yes, that can include chicken soup—can help you feel better.

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What Is It

A cold—or what doctors know as a noninfluenza-related upper respiratory infection—is the most common illness in the world. Americans come down with one billion colds each year. If you're wondering why there still isn't a cure, this may put it in perspective: Over 200 different viruses are responsible for colds. The rhinovirus strain is usually to blame…but even it has 160 known varieties. (Other common-cold culprits include respiratory syncytial virus and a few types of human coronaviruses—notably not SARS-CoV-2, the severe coronavirus that causes COVID-19.)

Rhinoviruses are quick to mutate, which makes it hard for your immune system to go after them—and for scientists to come up with surefire treatments. Until a cure for the common cold is created, you'll have to wait until your immune system successfully fights off the germs making you feel sick.

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Types

Cold viruses only infect about 1% of the cells that line your nasal passageways, but they trigger a strong response from your body's defenses. Most of the time, your immune system eventually gets the upper hand, but occasionally, common colds can progress far enough in your body to cause other issues.

If the virus travels from your nose and throat into your lungs, causing inflammation and a buildup of mucus, you have what's called a chest cold, or acute bronchitis. Chest colds can cause wet coughs that produce lots of phlegm (and may keep you up at night.) You could also have a sore throat and shortness of breath.

If the cold virus inflames your sinus membranes and makes it harder for mucus to drain, you can develop a head cold, or acute sinusitis. Your congestion will get worse and you'll notice that it's draining down the back of your throat. You could also have tenderness around your eyes, nose, cheeks, and forehead.

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Symptoms 

It takes between one to three days after you've been exposed to a cold virus for your symptoms to first appear. Everyone is different, but most people often feel rundown. Some other common cold symptoms include:

You may have heard that if discharge from your nose is clear, you have a cold, and if it's yellow or green, you have a bacterial infection. This isn't true. As your body fights to get rid of cold germs, the color of your mucus may naturally change from clear and thin to thick yellow or green.

It's important to note that having mild cold symptoms doesn't mean that you're any less contagious—your immune system is just doing a good job of containing the virus. You can still infect others and they may have more severe symptoms than you.

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Causes

Cold germs are extremely contagious. Tiny virus droplets spread as far as six feet when an infected person sneezes, coughs, or blows their nose. You can also get sick if you touch something with germs on it, like a light switch or countertop, then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth.

You're more likely to catch a cold if:

  • You have a weakened immune system.
  • It's a cooler time of year.
  • You smoke or are exposed to secondhand smoke.
  • You're in close contact with big groups of people (think: on an airplane).
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Diagnosis

You'll probably be able to tell you have a cold from the symptoms you're having. If you do go to the doctor, there's no test which can confirm you have a cold. Your doctor may diagnose you by simply looking in your throat and asking some questions.

Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may want to rule out other conditions like the flu, strep throat, or COVID-19. Those tests can be done with a quick nose or throat swab.

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Treatment

Antibiotics don't work for colds. Over-the-counter cold relief products can't make your cold go away any faster, but they can ease your symptoms.

For instance:

  • Decongestants can reduce swelling in your nasal passages.
  • Expectorants thin mucus so it's easier to clear from your airways.
  • Antihistamines can dry up your runny nose.
  • Cough suppressants will help you cough less.
  • Pain relievers ease mild body aches.

Check the ingredients and warning labels of all OTC products before you take them. Some can interact with certain foods, alcohols, or other medications. Others can make you drowsy. 

As icky as you may feel, a cold often goes away on its own in about a week to 10 days. During that time, self-care is your best strategy.

Try to:

Drink lots of fluids. You'll thin out congestion and stave off dehydration.

Rest. Sleeping will help your immune system recharge.

Keep the air moist. A humidifier will make it easier for you to breathe.

Gargle with warm salt water. Doing so will soothe a chapped and swollen throat. Try one teaspoon of salt per cup of warm water.

Sip warm liquids. Whether your preference is chicken soup or green tea, hot fluids can comfort your throat and help loosen thick congestion.

In some cases, a cold can evolve into another health issue like strep throat, pneumonia, or an infection that does need medical treatment.

Call your doctor if:

  • Your symptoms don't get better after a few days.
  • You have a fever over 101.3 F degrees.
  • Your fever goes away, then comes back.
  • You have trouble breathing.
  • You have a severe sore throat, sinus pain, or intense headache.
  • Your glands are swollen.
  • You're coughing up mucus.
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Prevention

To protect you from the common cold virus, try to:

  • Frequently wash your hands. Use water, soap, and lather up for at least 20 seconds. Your second-best option? Hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
  • Keep your hands away from your face. Your eyes, nose, and mouth are all entry points for the cold virus to sneak into your body.
  • Try not to spread germs. Use tissues when you sneeze or cough. If you don't have one handy, cover your mouth or nose with the crook your elbow rather than letting germs release into the air.
  • Disinfect high-touch surfaces. Door knobs, TV remotes, sink faucets—regularly clean areas like these that get handled by multiple people and could harbor germs.
  • Put self-care on your to-do list. Don't wait until you feel sick to get enough sleep, eat well, and stay hydrated. All these things can help you prevent getting a cold in the first place.

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