Health Conditions A-Z Infectious Diseases Common Cold 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. By Stephanie Booth Stephanie Booth Twitter Website A Portland, Oregon-based freelance writer, Stephanie Booth’s stories have appeared in print magazines like Real Simple, Cosmopolitan, Psychology Today, and Parents; newspapers like The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times; websites like Healthline and WebMD, and the occasional digital health app. When not writing, she’s reading, hiking, doing yoga, and wishing she had a million dollars to donate to Best Friends Animal Society. health's editorial guidelines Updated on January 30, 2023 Medically reviewed by Isabel Casimiro, MD Medically reviewed by Isabel Casimiro, MD Isabel Casimiro, MD, PhD, is an endocrinologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois. As a physician-scientist in molecular biology, she uses her research on diabetes, lipid disorders, cardiovascular function, and more to provide comprehensive care to her patients. Her research findings have been published in several scientific and medical journals, including Cell Metabolism and the Journal of the Endocrine Society. Dr. Casimiro also has extensive experience providing gender-affirming hormone therapy and improving education regarding transgender medicine for endocrinology fellows. Her work with transgender patients has been published in the Journal of the Endocrine Society and Transgender Health. Dr. Casimiro also serves on graduate and medical school program committees and is a clinical instructor at the University of Chicago. Dr. Casimiro received her PhD in biomedical research from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and her medical degree from the University of Washington. She completed her internal medicine residency and endocrinology fellowship through the Physician Scientist Development Program at the University of Chicago. She is board-certified in internal medicine. learn more Share Tweet Pin Email In This Article View All In This Article What Is a Common Cold? Types of Common Colds What Causes Common Colds? Common Cold Symptoms What To See a Healthcare Provider How Are Common Colds Diagnosed? Treatment for Adults Treatment for Children How To Prevent Common Colds A Quick Review 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. What Is a Chest Cold? Here's How Doctors Explain It 8 Signs It's More Serious Than the Common Cold The Truth Behind the ‘Feed a Cold, Starve a Fever’ Saying The Difference Between a Sinus Infection and a Cold 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 systemSmokers or people who are exposed to secondhand smokePeople in close contact with big groups of people, like on an airplaneInfants 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: CongestionSneezingCoughingMild muscle achesSlight headacheScratchy throatWatery eyesMild joint painWeakened sense of taste and smellLoss of appetiteLow-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 FahrenheitA fever that goes away then comes backTrouble breathingA severe sore throat, sinus pain, or intense headacheSwollen glandsCoughing 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 youngerA fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit or higher in children of any ageBlue lipsDifficulty breathing, including nostrils widening with each breath; wheezing; fast breathing; the ribs showing with each breath; or shortness of breathSevere headacheNot eating or drinking, with signs of dehydration (such as decreased urination)Excessive crankiness or sleepinessPersistent ear pain Cold Sweats: What to Know About Causes and Treatments, According to Experts How To Soothe a Sore Throat Fast How To Relieve Chest Congestion The Most Common Extreme Fatigue Causes, According to Experts 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. How Long Is a Cold Contagious? Coronavirus or Cold Symptoms: How Do They Compare? The Best (and Worst) Cold and Flu Medicines, According to Experts 12 Foods and Drinks That Boost Your Immune System 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 passagesExpectorants, which thin mucus so that it's easy to clear from your airwaysAntihistamines, which dry up your runny noseCough suppressants, which help you cough lessPain 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. Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! Tell us why! Other Submit 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. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common colds: Protect yourself and others. National Library of Medicine. Common cold. American Lung Association. Facts about the common cold. Eccles R. The role of nasal congestion as a defence against respiratory viruses. Clin Otolaryngol. 2021;46(1):4-8. doi:10.1111/coa.13658 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common cold. Food and Drug Administration. Should you give kids medicines for coughs and colds?. National Library of Medicine. Cold and cough medicines.