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).
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)
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.
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:
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.
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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.
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
- Severe sore throat, headache, or sinus pain
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
- 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.
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