What Is a Common Cold?

Common colds are just that: common. The average adult has about two to four common colds per year, while children have many more bouts of illness.

Have a runny or stuffy nose, scratchy throat, and general sense of being slightly under the weather? You may have a common cold, which is a viral upper respiratory tract infection. On average, in the United States, adults get two to three colds per year. In contrast, children get sick more often than adults.

Here's everything you need to know about the common cold, including symptoms, causes, prevention, treatments, and more.

What Is a Common Cold?

The common cold—or what some healthcare providers call a "non-influenza-related upper respiratory infection"—is one of the most common illnesses in the world. In the United States, collectively, people come down with one billion colds per year.

Over 200 different viruses are responsible for common colds. The culprit is typically rhinoviruses, which have nearly 160 known varieties. Other common viruses include respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and a few types of coronaviruses. However, SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, does not cause a common cold.

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.

Instead, until scientists develop a cure for the common cold, you'll have to wait until your immune system successfully fights off the germs making you feel sick.

Types of Common Colds

Cold viruses only infect about 1% of the cells that line your nasal passageways. However, those viruses trigger a strong response from your immune system. Mostly your immune system eventually gets the upper hand. 

Occasionally, common colds can progress far enough in your body to cause other issues, including a chest or head cold.

Chest Cold

If the virus travels from your nose and throat into your lungs, causing inflammation and mucus buildup, you have a chest cold.

Also known as acute bronchitis, chest colds cause wet coughs that produce a lot of phlegm and keep you up at night. Additionally, you could have a sore throat and shortness of breath.

Head Cold

Or if the cold virus inflames your sinus membranes and makes it hard for mucus to drain, you can develop a head cold.

Also known as acute sinusitis, head colds cause congestion and mucus that drains down the back of your throat. A head cold can also cause tenderness around your eyes, nose, cheeks, and forehead.

What Causes Common Colds?

Cold viruses 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, like a light switch or countertop, then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth.

Risk Factors

Additionally, people who are more likely to catch a common cold than others include:

  • People with a weak immune system
  • Smokers or people who are exposed to secondhand smoke
  • People in close contact with big groups of people, like on an airplane
  • Infants or children

Also, cold viruses spread rapidly during the cold months. Although, it's possible to get a common cold any time of the year.

Common Cold Symptoms

After exposure to a cold virus, symptoms can appear for about one to three days. Symptoms vary between people. Still, in most cases, people often feel rundown. 

Some other common cold symptoms include:

  • Congestion
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Mild muscle aches
  • Slight headache
  • Scratchy throat
  • Watery eyes
  • Mild joint pain
  • Weakened sense of taste and smell
  • Loss of appetite
  • Low-grade fever 

You may have heard that if the discharge from your nose is clear, you have a cold, and if it's yellow or green, you have a bacterial infection. However, that isn't true. 

Instead, as your body fights to get rid of cold germs, the color of your mucus may change from clear and thin to thick yellow or green.   

Also, remember that having mild cold symptoms doesn't mean you're any less contagious. Mild cold symptoms mean your immune system does a good job of containing the virus. You can still infect others who may have more severe symptoms than you.

What To See a Healthcare Provider

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

Call your healthcare provider if you have the following:

  • A fever over 101.3 degrees Fahrenheit
  • A fever that goes away then comes back
  • Trouble breathing
  • A severe sore throat, sinus pain, or intense headache
  • Swollen glands
  • Coughing up mucus

Symptoms in children that warrant a call to a healthcare provider include:

  • A fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher in infants two months or younger
  • A fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit or higher in children of any age
  • Blue lips
  • Difficulty breathing, including nostrils widening with each breath; wheezing; fast breathing; the ribs showing with each breath; or shortness of breath
  • Severe headache
  • Not eating or drinking, with signs of dehydration (such as decreased urination)
  • Excessive crankiness or sleepiness
  • Persistent ear pain

How Are Common Colds Diagnosed?

No test can confirm if you have a common cold. Still, you're probably able to discern that you're ill from your symptoms. Also, a healthcare provider may diagnose you by simply looking in your throat and asking questions about your symptoms.

Depending on your symptoms, a healthcare provider may want to rule out other conditions like the flu, strep throat, or COVID-19. Those tests may include a quick nose or throat swab.

Treatment for Adults

No treatment can cure a cold or shorten its duration. Instead, home remedies and over-the-counter (OTC) cold relief products can ease your symptoms until the virus has run its course.

Here are some home remedies and self-care strategies to try:

  • Drink a lot of fluids: You'll reduce congestion and relieve dehydration.
  • Rest: Sleeping will help your immune system recharge.
  • Keep the air moist: A humidifier will make it easy for you to breathe if you're congested.
  • Gargle with warm salt water: This helps soothe an irritated 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, warm fluids can soothe your throat and help loosen thick congestion.

OTC products that will help ease symptoms include:

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

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

As ill as you may feel, a cold often goes away in about seven to 10 days. However, some symptoms can linger up to 14 days.

Antibiotics do not work for colds. Colds are viral infections and antibiotics only treat bacterial infections.

Treatment for Children

Many of the same self-care strategies and OTC medications that ease cold symptoms in adults also work for children.

However, it's important to use medicines specifically labeled for children. Also, some cough and cold medicines for children can cause dangerous side effects, such as difficulty breathing.

To reduce cold symptoms and discomfort in children, try some of the following:

  • A cool mist humidifier: This decreases congestion in nasal passages. Warm mist humidifiers can cause nasal passages to swell and make breathing more difficult. 
  • Saline nose drops or sprays: These keep nasal passages moist and help avoid stuffiness. 
  • A bulb syringe: You can use a bulb syringe with or without saline nose drops to gently suction mucus from a child's nose. This method is ideal for infants since they cannot blow their noses.

How To Prevent Common Colds

Try some of the following tips to prevent a common cold in the first place:

  • Frequently wash your hands: Use water and 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 of your elbow rather than letting germs release into the air.
  • Disinfect high-touch surfaces: Wipe off door knobs, television remotes, and sink faucets with a disinfectant regularly. Multiple people touch those items, so they 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 of those things can help you prevent getting a cold in the first place.

A Quick Review

Common colds are just that: common. The average adult has about two to four common colds per year, while children have many more bouts of illness. Many viruses cause common colds, but one of the most likely culprits is rhinoviruses.

The only way to get rid of cold symptoms is to let it run its course. Most colds last approximately seven to 10 days. In the meantime, there are many ways to reduce symptoms and make yourself comfortable as you wait it out.

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Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. National Library of Medicine. Common cold.

  3. American Lung Association. Facts about the common cold.

  4. Eccles R. The role of nasal congestion as a defence against respiratory virusesClin Otolaryngol. 2021;46(1):4-8. doi:10.1111/coa.13658

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common cold.

  6. Food and Drug Administration. Should you give kids medicines for coughs and colds?.

  7. National Library of Medicine. Cold and cough medicines.

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