The common cold is a viral infection of your upper respiratory tract —
your nose and throat. A common cold is usually harmless, although it may
not feel that way. If it's not a runny nose, sore throat and cough,
it's the watery eyes, sneezing and congestion — or maybe all of the
above. In fact, because any one of more than 100 viruses can cause a
common cold, signs and symptoms tend to vary greatly.
Preschool children are at greatest risk of frequent colds, but even healthy adults can expect to have a few colds each year.
Most people recover from a common cold in about a week or two. If symptoms don't improve, see your doctor.
Symptoms of a common cold usually appear about one to three days after
exposure to a cold-causing virus. Signs and symptoms of a common cold
* Runny or stuffy nose
* Itchy or sore throat
* Slight body aches or a mild headache
* Watery eyes
* Low-grade fever
* Mild fatigue
The discharge from your nose may become thicker and yellow or green in
color as a common cold runs its course. What makes a cold different from
other viral infections is that you generally won't have a high fever.
You're also unlikely to experience significant fatigue from a common
When to see a doctor
For adults — seek medical attention if you have:
* Fever of 103 F (39.4 C) or higher
* Fever accompanied by sweating, chills and a cough with colored phlegm
* Significantly swollen glands
* Severe sinus pain
For children — in general, children are sicker with a common cold than
adults are and often develop complications, such as ear infections. Your
child doesn't need to see the doctor for a routine common cold. But
seek medical attention right away if your child has any of the following
signs or symptoms:
* Fever of 103 F (39.4 C) or higher in children age 2 or older
* Fever of 102 F (38.9 C) or higher in children ages 6 weeks to 2 years
* Fever of 100 F (37.8 C) in newborns up to 6 weeks
* Signs of dehydration, such as urinating less often than usual
* Not drinking adequate fluids
* Fever that lasts more than three days
* Vomiting or abdominal pain
* Unusual sleepiness
* Severe headache
* Stiff neck
* Difficulty breathing
* Persistent crying
* Ear pain
* Persistent cough
If symptoms in a child or an adult last longer than 10 days, call your doctor.
Although more than 100 viruses can cause a common cold, the rhinovirus is the most common culprit, and it's highly contagious.
A cold virus enters your body through your mouth or nose. The virus can
spread through droplets in the air when someone who is sick coughs,
sneezes or talks. But it also spreads by hand-to-hand contact with
someone who has a cold or by using shared objects, such as utensils,
towels, toys or telephones. If you touch your eyes, nose or mouth after
such contact or exposure, you're likely to "catch" a cold.
Cold viruses are almost always present in the environment. But the
following factors can increase your chances of getting a cold:
* Age. Infants and preschool children are especially susceptible to
common colds because they haven't yet developed resistance to most of
the viruses that cause them. But an immature immune system isn't the
only thing that makes kids vulnerable. They also tend to spend lots of
time with other children and frequently aren't careful about washing
their hands and covering their mouth and nose when they cough and
sneeze. Colds in newborns can be problematic if they interfere with
nursing or breathing through the nose.
* Immunity. As you age, you develop immunity to many of the viruses
that cause common colds. You'll have colds less frequently than you did
as a child. However, you can still come down with a cold when you are
exposed to cold viruses or have a weakened immune system. All of these
factors increase your risk of a cold.
* Time of year. Both children and adults are more susceptible to
colds in fall and winter. That's because children are in school, and
most people are spending a lot of time indoors. In places where there is
no winter season, colds are more frequent in the rainy season.
* Acute ear infection (otitis media). Ear infection occurs when
bacteria or viruses infiltrate the space behind the eardrum. It's a
frequent complication of common colds in children. Typical signs and
symptoms include earaches and, in some cases, a green or yellow
discharge from the nose or the return of a fever following a common
cold. Children who are too young to verbalize their distress may simply
cry or sleep restlessly. Ear pulling is not a reliable sign.
* Wheezing. A cold can trigger wheezing in children with asthma.
* Sinusitis. In adults or children, a common cold that doesn't
resolve may lead to sinusitis — inflammation and infection of the
* Other secondary infections. These include strep throat
(streptococcal pharyngitis), pneumonia, bronchitis in adults, and croup
or bronchiolitis in children. These infections need to be treated by a
Preparing for your appointment
If you or your child has a cold, you're likely to start by seeing your
family doctor, a general practitioner or your child's pediatrician.
Because appointments can be brief, and because there's often a lot of
ground to cover, it's a good idea to be well prepared for your
appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready for your
appointment, and what to expect from your doctor.
Information to prepare in advance
* Write down any symptoms you or your child has had, and for how long.
* Note any recent exposure to people who've been ill with similar signs and symptoms.
* Write down key medical information, including any other health
problems and the names of any medications you or your child is taking.
* Write down your questions for the doctor.
Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions
will help you make the most of your time together. List your questions
from most important to least important in case time runs out. For common
cold, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
* What is the most likely cause of these signs and symptoms?
* Are there any other possible causes?
* Are any tests needed?
* What treatment approach do you recommend?
* What treatments should be avoided?
* How soon do you expect symptoms to improve?
* Am I or my child contagious? When is it safe to return to school or work?
* What self-care steps might help?
* I or my child has these other health conditions. How can they best be managed together?
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor,
don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment at any time that
you don't understand something.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to
answer them may allow more time later to cover other points you want to
address. Your doctor may ask:
* What signs and symptoms have you noticed, and how severe are they?
* Have these symptoms changed over time?
* Did symptoms improve and then worsen?
* Have these signs and symptoms included a fever? How high?
* Have you or your child been exposed to anyone with a similar illness in the last couple of weeks?
* Does anything seem to make your or your child's symptoms better or worse?
* What medications are you or your child currently taking, including vitamins and supplements?
* Have you or your child been diagnosed with any other medical conditions?
* Has you or your child lost weight?
What you can do in the meantime
While you're waiting for your appointment, get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids.
Treatments and drugs
There's no cure for the common cold. Antibiotics are of no use against
cold viruses. Over-the-counter (OTC) cold preparations won't cure a
common cold or make it go away any sooner, and most have side effects.
Here's a look at the pros and cons of some common cold remedies.
* Pain relievers. For fever, sore throat and headache, many people
turn to acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or other mild pain relievers.
Keep in mind that acetaminophen can cause liver damage, especially if
taken frequently or in larger than recommended doses. Don't give
acetaminophen to children under 3 months of age, and be especially
careful when giving acetaminophen to older babies and children because
the dosing guidelines can be confusing. For instance, the infant-drop
formulation is much more concentrated than the syrup commonly used in
older children. Never give aspirin to children. It has been associated
with Reye's syndrome — a rare but potentially fatal illness.
* Decongestant nasal sprays. Adults shouldn't use decongestant drops
or sprays for more than a few days because prolonged use can cause
chronic rebound inflammation of mucous membranes. And children shouldn't
use decongestant drops or sprays at all. There's little evidence that
they work in young children, and they may cause side effects.
Cough syrups. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the
American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommend against giving OTC
cough and cold medicines to children younger than age 2.
Over-the-counter cough and cold medicines don't effectively treat the
underlying cause of a child's cold, and won't cure a child's cold or
make it go away any sooner. These medications also have potential side
effects, including rapid heart rate and convulsions.
In June 2008, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association
voluntarily modified consumer product labels on OTC cough and cold
medicines to state "do not use" in children under 4 years of age, and
many companies have stopped manufacturing these products for young
FDA experts are studying the safety of cough and cold medicines
for children older than age 2. In the meantime, remember that cough and
cold medicines won't make a cold go away any sooner — and side effects
are still possible. If you give cough or cold medicines to an older
child, carefully follow the label directions. Don't give your child two
medicines with the same active ingredient, such as an antihistamine,
decongestant or pain reliever. Too much of a single ingredient could
lead to an accidental overdose.
Lifestyle and home remedies
You may not be able to cure your common cold, but you can make yourself as comfortable as possible. These tips may help:
* Drink lots of fluids. Water, juice, clear broth or warm lemon
water are all good choices. They help replace fluids lost during mucus
production or fever. Avoid alcohol and caffeine, which can cause
dehydration, and cigarette smoke, which can aggravate your symptoms.
* Try chicken soup. Generations of parents have spooned chicken soup
into their sick children's mouths. Now scientists have put chicken soup
to the test, discovering that it does seem to help relieve cold and flu
symptoms in two ways. First, it acts as an anti-inflammatory by
inhibiting the movement of neutrophils — immune system cells that help
the body's response to inflammation. Second, it temporarily speeds up
the movement of mucus through the nose, helping relieve congestion and
limiting the time viruses are in contact with the nasal lining.
* Get some rest. If possible, stay home from work if you have a
fever or a bad cough, or are drowsy after the medications. This will
give you a chance to rest as well as reduce the chances that you'll
infect others. Wear a mask when you have a cold if you live or work with
someone with a chronic disease or compromised immune system.
* Adjust your room's temperature and humidity. Keep your room warm,
but not overheated. If the air is dry, a cool-mist humidifier or
vaporizer can moisten the air and help ease congestion and coughing. Be
sure to keep the humidifier clean to prevent the growth of bacteria and
* Soothe your throat. A saltwater gargle — 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon (1.2
milliliters to 2.5 milliliters) salt dissolved in an 8-ounce (237
milliliters) glass of warm water — can temporarily relieve a sore or
* Use saline nasal drops. To help relieve nasal congestion, try
saline nasal drops. You can buy these drops over-the-counter, and
they're effective, safe and nonirritating, even for children. In
infants, experts recommend instilling several saline drops into one
nostril, then gently suctioning that nostril with a bulb syringe (push
the bulb in about 1/4 to 1/2 inch, or about 6 to 12 millimeters). Doing
this before feeding your baby can improve your child's ability to nurse
or take a bottle, and before bedtime it may improve sleep. Saline nasal
sprays may be used in older children.
In spite of ongoing studies, the scientific jury is still out on common
alternative cold remedies such as vitamin C and echinacea. Here's an
update on some popular choices:
* Vitamin C. It appears that for the most part taking vitamin C
won't help the average person prevent colds. However, taking vitamin C
at the onset of cold symptoms may shorten the duration of symptoms.
* Echinacea. Studies on the effectiveness of echinacea at preventing
or shortening colds are mixed. Some studies show no benefit. Others
show a significant reduction in the severity and duration of cold
symptoms when taken in the early stages of a cold. One reason study
results have been inconclusive may be that the type of echinacea plant
and preparation used from one study to the next have varied
considerably. Research on the role of echinacea in treating the common
cold is ongoing. In the meantime, if your immune system is healthy and
you are not taking prescription medications, using echinacea supplements
is unlikely to cause harm.
Zinc. The cold-fighting reputation of zinc has had its ups and
downs. That's because many zinc studies — both those that find the
mineral beneficial and those that do not — are flawed. In studies with
positive results, zinc seemed most effective taken within 24 hours of
the onset of symptoms. Taking zinc with food may reduce side effects,
including a bad taste and nausea.
Intranasal zinc may result in permanent damage to the sense of
smell. In June 2009, the FDA issued a warning against using three
zinc-containing nasal cold remedies because they had been associated
with a long-lasting or permanent loss of smell (anosmia).
No vaccine has been developed for the common cold, which can be caused
by many different viruses. But you can take some common-sense
precautions to slow the spread of cold viruses:
* Wash your hands. Clean your hands thoroughly and often, and teach your children the importance of hand washing.
* Scrub your stuff. Keep kitchen and bathroom countertops clean,
especially when someone in your family has a common cold. Wash
children's toys periodically.
* Use tissues. Always sneeze and cough into tissues. Discard used
tissues right away, and then wash your hands carefully. Teach children
to sneeze or cough into the bend of their elbow when they don't have a
tissue. That way they cover their mouths without using their hands.
* Don't share. Don't share drinking glasses or utensils with other
family members. Use your own glass or disposable cups when you or
someone else is sick. Label the cup or glass with the name of the person
with the cold.
* Steer clear of colds. Avoid close, prolonged contact with anyone who has a cold.
* Choose your child care center wisely. Look for a child care
setting with good hygiene practices and clear policies about keeping
sick children at home.