What Is a Head Cold? Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

A head cold, sometimes called the common cold, can be rough. You may have a runny nose, congestion, sneezing, and a sore throat. Head colds are also—as their alternative name suggests—incredibly common. In the United States, there are about one billion colds each year.

There's no cure for a head cold. But you can take specific actions that will make you feel better while you wait for it to take its course. 

Health spoke to family medicine experts to find out everything you need to know about head colds, including what causes them, how they're treated, and whether you can prevent them.

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Head Cold Causes

Head colds are illnesses caused by several different viruses, Sterling Ransone, MD, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, told Health

Some of the most common types of viruses that cause head colds are adenoviruses, rhinoviruses, respiratory syncytial viruses (RSV), and coronaviruses. That said, COVID-19 is not one of the coronaviruses that causes the common cold, said Dr. Ransone.

You can get a head cold if you spread germs to your face, like if you touch your nose or mouth after touching a surface with germs on it. Additionally, you can get a cold by ingesting or inhaling germs.

So, it's essential to wash your hands regularly, keep them away from your face, and keep your distance from people who are sick.

Symptoms

Here's where the name "head cold" really comes into play. The symptoms primarily affect how your head and neck feel. 

The symptoms of a head cold usually show up two to three days after infection and include the following:

  • Sneezing
  • Congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Headache or facial pain

Also, some head colds might even cause a headache or ear-popping, Amy Zack, MD, a family medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, told Health.

Treatment Options

Unfortunately, there's no overnight treatment for a head cold. 

"The only true treatment for a head cold is time," said Dr. Zack. "The virus will run its course and typically resolve in five to 10 days."

But according to Dr. Zack, certain behaviors can help your body fight off the virus, including:

  • Resting
  • Drinking plenty of fluids
  • Using a humidifier
  • Breathing in the steam from hot water

One thing to add to your grocery list when you're sick is chicken noodle soup, said Dr. Ransone, who explained that it isn't just a myth. Chicken noodle soup can help you feel better when you have a cold. Why? Three qualities make it worthwhile: Fluid, lean protein, and carbohydrates.

In addition to lifestyle behaviors, certain over-the-counter (OTC) medications might help you recover from a head cold, like:

  • Decongestants
  • Nasal saline spray
  • Throat spray and throat lozenges
  • Pain medication—though, you should read the label to make sure it's safe to use, as children shouldn't take aspirin.

If you are taking certain medications or have any chronic health conditions, consult a healthcare provider about the best way to treat your head cold. 

"It is very important if you have other medical problems, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, etcetera—or take other chronic medications—to talk with your [healthcare provider] about the safety of OTCmedications for you," noted Dr. Zack.

Prevention of Head Colds

While there's no one sure way to prevent catching a head cold, you can reduce your risk of getting one by staying away from people whom you know are sick.

You can also help reduce your risk of getting a cold by washing your hands often, avoiding close contact with sick people, and not touching your face with unwashed hands.

A Quick Review

Also known as the common cold, head colds bring unwanted symptoms like a stuffy nose, sneezing, and a sore throat. Head colds are prevalent and are spread by infected people.

You can steer clear of head colds by washing your hands, avoiding close contact with infected people, and not touching your face.

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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.
  1. National Library of Medicine. Common cold.

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

  3. Meyers RS, Thackray J, Matson KL, et al. Key Potentially Inappropriate Drugs in Pediatrics: The KIDs ListJ Pediatr Pharmacol Ther. 2020;25(3):175-191. doi:10.5863/1551-6776-25.3.175

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common colds: Protect yourself and others.

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