The first signs of the common cold are fairly obvious: a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, and a scratchy, sore throat. Most people quickly recognize these early symptoms because the common cold is so ordinary. In fact, adults have an average of 2 to 3 colds per year.
The common cold is actually a viral infection in your upper respiratory tract. A cold can be caused by more than 200 viruses. The most common are rhinoviruses.
These viruses are easily spread from person to person or surface to surface. Many of these viruses can live on surfaces for hours, even days.
While the common cold may indeed be familiar, there are some things to know about this ailment that can help you feel better, avoid future colds, or even prevent the spread of the virus to other people. Read on to find out more.
Once you‘re exposed to a cold-causing virus, cold symptoms typically take 1 to 3 days to appear. The symptoms of a cold rarely appear suddenly.
Nasal symptoms include:
Head symptoms include:
Whole body symptoms include:
- fatigue or general tiredness
- body aches
- low grade fever below 102°F (38.9°C)
- chest discomfort
- difficulty breathing deeply
Symptoms of a cold typically last for 7 to 10 days. Symptoms tend to peak around day 5 and gradually improve.
However, if your symptoms worsen after a week or haven’t disappeared after about 10 days, you may have another condition, and it may be time to see a doctor.
The common cold and the flu may seem very similar at first. They are indeed both respiratory illnesses and can cause similar symptoms. However, different viruses cause these two conditions, and your symptoms will help you differentiate between the two.
Knowing the difference between cold and flu symptoms can help you decide how to treat your condition — and whether you need to see a doctor.
As a rule, flu symptoms are more severe than cold symptoms.
Another distinct difference between the two is how serious they are. Colds rarely cause additional health conditions or problems. The flu, however, can lead to complications like:
Diagnosing an uncomplicated cold rarely requires a trip to your doctor’s office. Recognizing the symptoms of a cold is often all you need in order to figure out your diagnosis.
Of course, if your symptoms worsen or last longer than 10 days, make an appointment with a doctor. You could actually be dealing with a different health condition, which your doctor will be able to diagnose.
If you have a cold, you can expect the virus to work its way out of your system in about 7 to 10 days.
If your doctor diagnoses a cold, you’ll likely only need to treat your symptoms until the virus has had a chance to run its course. These treatments can include using over-the-counter (OTC) cold medications, staying hydrated, and getting plenty of rest.
If you have the flu, the virus may take the same amount of time as a cold to fully disappear. But if you notice your symptoms are getting worse after day 5, or if you don’t start feeling better after a week, it’s a good idea to follow up with your doctor, as you may have developed another condition.
If you have the flu, you may benefit from taking an antiviral flu medication early in the virus’ cycle. Rest and hydration are also very beneficial for people with the flu. Much like the common cold, the flu just needs time to work its way through your body.
Learn more about diagnosing a cold.
The common cold is a viral infection in your upper respiratory tract. Viruses cannot be treated with antibiotics. In most cases, viruses like the cold just need to run their course. You can treat the symptoms of the infection, but you can’t actually treat the infection itself.
Cold treatments generally fall into two main categories: over-the-counter (OTC) medications and home remedies.
Over-the-counter (OTC) medications
The most common OTC medications used for colds include:
Common cold medications sometimes include a combination of these medications. If you’re using one, be sure to read the label and understand what you’re taking so you don’t accidentally take more than you should of any one class of drug.
The most common side effects from OTC cold medications include:
- dry mouth
If you’ve previously received a diagnosis of high blood pressure, you should consult your doctor before using any OTC cold medications.
Certain medications help relieve symptoms by narrowing blood vessels and reducing blood flow. If you have high blood pressure, this may affect blood flow throughout your body.
Like OTC cold remedies, home remedies for the common cold don’t cure or treat a cold. Instead, they can help make your symptoms less severe and easier to manage.
The most effective and common home remedies for a cold include:
- Gargling with salt water. A salt water gargle can help coat your throat and ease irritation.
- Drinking plenty of fluids. Staying well hydrated helps you replace fluids you’ve lost while also helping relieve congestion.
- Using vapor rub. Vapor rub topical ointments help open your airways and ease congestion.
- Getting lots of rest. Getting plenty of rest helps your body save energy to let the virus run its course.
- Zinc lozenges. Zinc lozenges may reduce how long cold symptoms last if they’re taken at the very start of your symptoms.
- Echinacea. According to research, echinacea may be effective at reducing the duration of a cold in some cases.
Learn about more home remedies for cold symptoms.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t recommend OTC medications for cough and cold symptoms in children younger than 2 because these medications could cause serious and potentially life threatening side effects. Manufacturers voluntarily label these cough and cold products: “Do not use in children under 4 years of age.“
You may be able to help ease a child’s cold symptoms with these home remedies:
- Rest. Children who have a cold may be more tired and irritable than normal. If possible, let them stay home from school and rest until the cold has cleared.
- Hydration. It’s very important that children with a cold get plenty of fluids. Colds can dehydrate them quickly. Make sure they’re drinking regularly. Water is great. Warm drinks like tea can pull double duty as a sore throat soother.
- Food. Kids with a cold may not feel as hungry as usual, so look for ways to give them calories and fluids. Smoothies and soups are two good options.
- Salt water gargles. Salt water gargles aren’t the most pleasant experience, but gargling with warm, salty water can help soothe sore throats. Saline nasal sprays can also help clear nasal congestion.
- Warm baths. A warm bath may help ease mild aches and pains that are common with a cold.
- A cool mist humidifier. A cool mist humidifier can help decrease nasal congestion. Don’t use a warm mist humidifier, as it can cause swelling in the nasal passages, making it more difficult to breathe.
- Bulb syringe. Nasal suctioning with a bulb syringe works well to clear babies‘ nasal passages. Older children typically resist bulb syringes.
Learn more about treating colds in children.
The average common cold lasts anywhere from 7 to 10 days, but they can last as long as 2 weeks. Depending on your overall health, you may have symptoms for more or less time. For example, people who smoke or have asthma may experience symptoms for a longer period of time.
If your symptoms don’t ease or disappear within 7 to 10 days, make an appointment to see a doctor. If your symptoms begin worsening after 5 days, it’s also important to see a doctor.
Symptoms that don’t go away or get worse could be a sign of a bigger problem, such as the flu or strep throat.
Learn more about what you can expect throughout your cold’s duration.
When you’re sick, you might not feel like eating at all, but your body still needs the energy that food provides. The following foods may be extra helpful for your cold recovery:
Chicken noodle soup
The salty soup is a classic “treatment” for all kinds of illnesses. It’s especially great for colds. Warm liquids are good for helping open up your sinuses so you can breathe more easily, and the salt from the soup can ease irritated throat tissue.
Warm drinks like tea are great for colds. Add honey for a cough-busting boost. Slices of ginger may also reduce inflammation and ease congestion. Try to stay away from coffee, though. Caffeine can interfere with medications, and it may increase your risk of dehydration.
Yogurt contains billions of healthy bacteria that can boost your gut health. Having a healthy microbiome in your gut may help your body fight any number of illnesses and conditions, including a cold.
Like hot tea, popsicles may help numb and ease the pain of a sore throat. Look for low sugar varieties or make your own “smoothie” pop with yogurt, fruit, and natural juices.
The most important thing to remember when you have a cold is to stay hydrated. Drink water or warm tea regularly. Avoid caffeine and alcohol while you’re recovering from a cold. Both can make your cold symptoms worse.
Learn more about what you should eat and drink to soothe a sore throat.
Certain conditions may increase your risk of catching a cold. These include:
- Time of year. Colds can happen any time of year, but they’re more common in the fall and winter, or during rainy seasons. We spend more time inside when it’s cold and wet, which increases the chance of the virus spreading.
- Age. Children under age 6 are more likely to develop colds. Their risk is even higher if they’re in day care or a child care setting with other kids.
- Environment. If you’re around a lot of people, such as on a plane or at a concert, you’re more likely to encounter rhinoviruses.
- Compromised immune system. If you have a chronic illness or have been sick recently, you may be more likely to pick up a cold virus.
- Smoking. People who smoke have an increased risk of catching a cold, and their colds tend to be more severe.
- Lack of sleep. Irregular or inadequate sleep can affect your immune system, which may make you more susceptible to cold viruses.
Learn more about the risk factors for a cold.
Uncomplicated colds are a minor illness, but they’re inconvenient and can certainly make you feel miserable.
You can’t get a vaccine to prevent colds like you can the flu. But you can do a few key things during cold season to help you avoid picking up a cold virus.
Check out more tips for cold prevention.
When a person contracts a cold-causing virus, it can be spread to others through the air, on surfaces, and through close, personal contact. People carrying the virus can also leave virus behind on shared surfaces like doorknobs and computers.
If you‘re sick with a cold, it’s important to be a good neighbor, family member, or friend and take steps to protect those around you when possible.
Colds can make you feel miserable. But you’re unlikely to need to see your doctor if you have a cold.
Most cold viruses will work their way through your body in 7 to 10 days. Symptoms are usually at their worst 5 days after you first notice them. As uncomfortable as it may be, using OTC medications and home remedies are typically the best way to deal with a typical, uncomplicated cold.
However, there are some instances when you may need to see a doctor about your cold symptoms. Consider getting medical attention in the following situations:
- Severe or worsening symptoms. If your symptoms seem more severe than usual (for example, a cough or headaches that are worse than usual), it’s time to see a doctor.
- Symptoms that persist. If symptoms of your cold last more than 10 days, make an appointment to see your doctor.
- Difficulty breathing. If you find it hard to breathe or have shortness of breath, get care right away.
- High or persistent fever. If you have a fever higher than 103°F (39.4°C) or your child has a fever of 102°F (38.9°C) or above, see a doctor. Also, get medical care if you or your child has a fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher for more than 3 days.
- Symptoms in a child under 3 months. If your infant is showing signs of a cold, including lethargy or a fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, see a doctor immediately.
- High risk medical conditions. If your cold persists and you fall into a high risk medical category, you should see your doctor. In the event you have something other than a cold, you could be at risk of complications. High risk medical categories include:
- children under age 5
- adults over 65
- pregnant people
- people with medical conditions like asthma, diabetes, and heart disease
The common cold is precisely that — common. In fact, adults have an average of 2 to 3 colds every year. That means most people know what a cold is as soon as symptoms begin to develop.
Colds can be quite uncomfortable. Symptoms like a runny or stuffy nose, headache, cough, and loss of smell or taste can make for a miserable few days. But after 7 to 10 days, most people will start to feel better.
There are no cures or treatments that will end a cold. The cold is a virus that has to run its course until it’s gone. Treatments for a common cold include OTC medications to ease congestion or sneezing. Home remedies like salt gargles can also ease symptoms, while rest and hydration can help your body recover from a cold.
Sometimes, a cold can be mistaken for other upper respiratory infections or infections like the flu. If your symptoms seem more severe or don’t ease after a week, make an appointment to see a doctor.