Skip to main content
Read about

Caught the Common Cold? How to Treat & Prevent Its Spread

A woman with a mask on. A question mark floats above her head.
Tooltip Icon.
Last updated March 28, 2022

Common cold quiz

Take a quiz to find out if you have common cold.

Care Plan


First steps to consider

  • Most common colds can be treated at home.
  • You can treat symptoms by drinking lots of fluids, rest, and taking OTC medications like decongestants and acetaminophen (Tylenol).
See home treatments

When you may need a provider

  • Symptoms are really bad or not going away after 7–10 days.
  • You have a fever for more than 3 days that does not improve when taking fever-reducing medication (like Tylenol)
See care providers

The common cold is a viral infection of the nose and throat. It is usually harmless and symptoms go away within 1–2 weeks.

What is a common cold?

The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract, which includes the nose, sinuses, and throat. There are over 200 viruses that can cause a cold.

The common cold usually lasts about a week, and goes away on its own. But there are many strategies to try to prevent and improve symptoms, from using nasal saline to taking decongestants.

Symptoms of a common cold.

Common cold symptoms

Symptoms of the common cold usually appear 1–3 days after you're exposed to the virus. They usually peak 2–4 days after your symptoms start and go away in 7–10 days. But some people (especially children) may experience cold symptoms for weeks at a time. They can range in severity and vary from person to person, but usually include:

  • Runny/stuffy nose: The fluid (mucus) is often clear or yellow in color. Green or bloody mucus may be a sign of a bacterial sinus infection.
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Nasal congestion
  • Sneezing
  • Fever: A temperature above 98.6℉
  • Malaise: Feelings of weakness or general illness

Common cold causes

More than 200 types of viruses can cause the common cold. The rhinovirus is the most common cold-causing virus. You don't need to test for a virus.

Cold-causing viruses can enter the body through the nose, mouth, or eyes. Touching any of these areas may increase your chances of catching a cold after exposure to the virus. These viruses can enter the body in two ways:

  • Airborne: They can spread through the air via droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks.
  • Contact: They can spread through skin-to-skin contact with an infected person or from contact with contaminated objects such as utensils, towels, or cellphones touched by an infected person.

Who is most likely to be affected

These factors can increase the likelihood of catching a cold:

  • Age: Children are at a greater risk of catching colds because many of them spend time in daycare or other childcare settings where they are more likely to be exposed to viruses.
  • Time of year: Both children and adults are more susceptible to colds in fall and winter, but a cold can occur at any time of the year.
  • Weakened immune system: People with conditions that weaken their immune systems, like chronic illnesses, or those on medications that suppress the immune system have a greater chance of catching colds and other infectious illnesses.
  • Exposure: If you are around many people, such as at school or on public transportation, you are more likely to be exposed to viruses that cause colds.
  • Smoking: Smokers are likely to catch colds, and their colds may be more severe, since smoking can damage the body's natural defense against infections.

Treatment and prevention

There is no cure for the common cold and there is no vaccine. It is important to know that antibiotics do not work against viruses, and will not help with symptoms of a common cold.

Treatment is aimed at relieving symptoms and allowing the body to rest. Options include OTC pain medication, cold-relief medication, cough syrup or honey, and supplemental methods. There are also many preventative methods that can be very effective.

OTC pain relief

OTC pain medication can help reduce your fever, sore throat, and headache symptoms. Options include:

  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
  • Naproxen (Aleve)

OTC cold medications

Various decongestants may provide relief from symptoms like runny nose and congestion. They can be found in pills and capsules, syrups, nasal sprays, or in other formulations. Always read the label and follow the instructions. Most products, like "Nyquil," "Dayquil," and other name brands, will contain multiple active ingredients, so use caution when combining medications.

Cough syrup and honey

The FDA and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) strongly recommend against giving OTC cough and cold medicines to children younger than age 4. There is no good evidence that these remedies are beneficial and safe for children. One good alternative to cough syrup in children or adults is natural honey, which one study found was equally as effective. Do not give honey to children under one year old.


There is limited evidence that supplements can shorten or improve your cold. However, all of the following methods are safe.

  • Vitamin C: Emergen-C or Airborne
  • Vitamin D
  • Garlic, ginseng, or echinacea
  • Zinc supplements: Zicam may reduce the number of colds per year, and may make a cold go away faster.


There are many things you can do to prevent and slow the spread of cold viruses:

  • Wash your hands: Clean your hands thoroughly and often with soap and water, especially after leaving the restroom, using tissues, or sneezing or coughing into your hands. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Disinfect: Clean kitchen, bathroom, and office countertops with disinfectant, especially when someone around you has a cold. Wipe hand-held items like telephones, electronics, and office supplies clean with a wipe or by using hand sanitizer.
  • Shield your sneeze and cough: Always try to sneeze or cough into a tissue. If tissues are not available, sneeze or cough into the bend of the elbow or sleeve of a shirt. This is always better than sneezing or coughing directly into the hands.
  • Don't share things that go in your mouth: Glasses, utensils, straws, toothbrushes, etc. should not be shared with other family members or friends.
Hand washing with soap helps to rinse the virus away.

Ready to treat your common cold?

We show you only the best treatments for your condition and symptoms—all vetted by our medical team. And when you’re not sure what’s wrong, Buoy can guide you in the right direction.See all treatment options
Illustration of two people discussing treatment.

When to see a doctor

Usually colds are harmless and go away on their own. However, if your cold symptoms linger for more than a week or so, or symptoms get worse, you may have developed a bacterial infection. See a doctor if you have any of the following symptoms—symptoms differ in adults and children.

In adults

If the following signs and symptoms occur, see a healthcare provider:

  • Fever greater than 101.3℉
  • Fever lasting 5 days or more or returning after a fever-free period
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Severe sore throat, headache, or sinus pain

In children

If the following signs and symptoms occur, seek medical attention:

  • Fever of 100.4℉ in newborns up to 12 weeks old
  • Rising fever or fever lasting more than 2 days in a child of any age
  • Symptoms that worsen or fail to improve
  • Severe symptoms, such as headache or cough
  • Wheezing
  • Ear pain
  • Extreme fussiness
  • Unusual drowsiness
  • Lack of appetite

Questions your doctor may ask to determine common cold

  • Do you look very sick (pale, sweaty, sleepy, unusual, etc.)?
  • Any fever today or during the last week?
  • Has your cough gotten better or worse?
  • How long has your cough been going on?
  • Is your cough constant or come-and-go?

Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.

Share your story
Once your story receives approval from our editors, it will exist on Buoy as a helpful resource for others who may experience something similar.
The stories shared below are not written by Buoy employees. Buoy does not endorse any of the information in these stories. Whenever you have questions or concerns about a medical condition, you should always contact your doctor or a healthcare provider.
Dr. Le obtained his MD from Harvard Medical School and his BA from Harvard College. Before Buoy, his research focused on glioblastoma, a deadly form of brain cancer. Outside of work, Dr. Le enjoys cooking and struggling to run up-and-down the floor in an adult basketball league.

Was this article helpful?

4 people found this helpful
Tooltip Icon.
Read this next
Slide 1 of 5


  1. Jensen, B. A user's guide to the common cold: from evidence-based remedies to recipes for soup, here's what you need to know to stay healthy during this cold and flu season. Johns Hopkins Health Review. 2016; 3(2). J Hopkins Health Rev Link. Accessed September 17, 2018.
  2. Hemil H, Chalker E. Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2013, Issue 1. Art. No.: CD000980. Cochrane Link. Published January 31, 2013. Accessed September 17, 2018.
  3. Hilding, DA. Literature review: the common cold. Ear, Nose, & Throat Journal. 1994; 73(9): 639-643, 46-47. Ear Nose Throat J Link. Published September 1994. Accessed September 17, 2018.
  4. Page no longer available
  5. Stechelberg, JM. Honey: An effective cough remedy? Is it true that honey calms coughs better than cough medicine does? Mayo Clinic Link. Published May 2, 2018. Accessed September 17, 2018.
  6. Marcy, TW, Merrill, WW. Cigarette smoking and respiratory tract infection. Clinics in Chest Medicine. 1987; 8(3): 381-91. Clin Chest Med Link. Published September 1987. Accessed September 17, 2018.
  7. Wat, D. The common cold: a review of the literature. European Journal of Internal Medicine. 2004; 15(2): 79-88. Eur J Intern Med Link. Published April 2004. Accessed September 17, 2018.
  8. Fashner, J, Ericson, K, Werner, S. Treatment of the common cold in children and adults. American Family Physician. 2012; 86(2): 153-159. Am Fam Physician Link. Published July 15, 2012. Accessed September 17, 2018.
  9. Sexton, DJ, McClain, MT. The common cold in adults: treatment and prevention. Up to Date Link. Updated January 29, 2018. Accessed September 17, 2018.