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Symptoms, Causes, Treatments, Questions & Related Topics

Key Points

  • The common cold is a viral illness that typically lasts seven to 10 days, with symptoms like nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing, scratchy throat, and sometimes a cough.
  • The cold virus can be contracted through the air, physical contact with a person who has a cold or objects they've touched, or when the immune system is weakened.
  • Prevention methods include regular hand washing, avoiding touching the face, and staying away from people who have a cold.
  • While there's no cure for a cold, symptoms can be managed with rest, hydration, and over-the-counter medications.
  • If a cold persists or worsens, it's recommended to seek medical attention. Doctors will likely inquire about the duration of symptoms, any pre-existing conditions, current medications, and if anyone else in the household is sick.

What is the Common Cold?

Whether it starts with a headache, a runny nose, or a fever, the common cold is an illness that most everyone has to deal with at one point or another – which is precisely why it’s called common! In just America alone, there are approximately one billion colds each and every year. Most of these colds happen during “cold season.” Cold season spans from September to April because of the cooler weather during this time and because children are in school and in such close contact with countless different germs.

Colds tend to last seven to 10 days, and because they are caused by viruses, there isn’t any medication that can make them go away faster. The best thing to do when you have a cold is to rest, drink plenty of fluids, and to treat your symptoms with over-the-counter medications. However, colds can linger and/or turn into something more serious such as the flu or a bacterial infection. In these cases, it’s always best to get checked out by a doctor.

Possible Symptoms for a Cold

1. Nasal Congestion

Nasal congestion is usually the most noticeable sign of the common cold.[1] It’s often the reason people confuse the common cold with the flu or with allergies, because all these issues cause the nose to become extremely stuffy. When your body comes into contact with the virus, your nose is strongly affected and begins to get stuffy. Congestion can be uncomfortable and make it difficult to complete your day-to-day tasks.

2. Runny Nose

When your nose becomes stuffy, it may also start to run, especially with a cold. You’ll need to constantly wipe or blow your nose. A runny nose is often one of the best ways to tell if you or someone else has a cold.

3. Sneezing

Nasal congestion and a runny nose lead to sneezing. These are the most common symptoms of a cold, because the condition is caused by a virus that generally begins in the nose and throat. You may sneeze constantly, more frequently, or more violently than normal.

4. Scratchy Throat

When you have a cold, a scratchy throat or throat pain occurs because the mucus in your nose leaks down into your throat, causing you to swallow it. This leads to an uncomfortable and sore throat, and it can be hard to swallow or talk. You might wake up with a scratchy throat as the first sign of your cold.

5. Cough

Not every virus that causes the common cold comes with coughing, but many do. It can be very uncomfortable to have a persistent cough when you’re dealing with a cold, which can cause or exacerbate a scratchy throat.

Top 3 Causes of a Cold

There are many types of viruses that cause the common cold, and a number of ways a person contracts a cold virus.

1. Breathing in the Virus

When you breathe in the same air as a person who has a cold, usually in a confined space like a classroom or office, you will likely contract the virus. Traveling by bus, train, or plane can also expose you to a virus in a space with air that is recycled. If someone sneezes or coughs on or near you while they are contagious, you may contract a cold.[2] Individuals are usually the most contagious for the first few days of having a cold.

2. Touching a Person With a Cold or an Item That Has Been Infected

When you touch someone who has a cold and then touch your eyes, mouth, or nose, this can quickly cause you to contract a cold yourself. Cold viruses can also be transmitted through objects. When you touch something that belongs to someone else, such as keys, the item may have the virus on them. Even if you touch something that has been touched by a sick person briefly, like a doorknob, you could still become infected, up to several hours later.[2]

3. Lowered Immune System

If you have a compromised immune system, as many children and elderly people do, you are more susceptible to contracting a cold.[2] If you are tired, stressed, smoke, or have a poor diet, you are more vulnerable to catching a cold as well.

3 Ways to Prevent a Cold

1. Washing Your Hands

Washing your hands often is one of the best ways to protect yourself against the common cold. Be sure to wash your hands after interactions with others or after being somewhere that likely has a lot of germs, such as a public restroom.[3]

2. Don’t Touch

When you are out and about, try not to touch your face, nose, mouth, and eyes. Try to avoid touching objects that many people handle, such as doorknobs, staircase or elevator railings, and household items like remotes. This is a good rule of thumb if you’re around kids or people you know are experiencing a cold.

3. Avoid Being Around People With a Cold

One of the best things to do to protect yourself is to avoid being around people with a cold. Try not to come into close contact with them if you can’t avoid them entirely.[3] If you have a cold make sure to cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough and, if you can, stay home while you are sick or while you are most contagious.

Possible Cold Treatment Options

Unfortunately, there is no one cure or treatment for the common cold, but there are a few things you can do to help yourself feel better.

1. Rest

Make sure to get plenty of rest. Even if you can’t sleep, you may want to lie in bed and read or watch TV.[1] Do low-impact activities for a while to avoid feeling worse or prolonging your cold.

2. Drink Fluids

Drink lots of fluids to avoid getting dehydrated during your cold.[4] Drinking water and other healthy fluids also helps flush the sickness out of your system more quickly.

3. Take Medicine

Although medicines can’t cure your cold, they can help you feel better faster. Over-the-counter medicines like painkillers, cough drops, throat sprays, and cold medicines, can relieve symptoms and help you sleep better so that you can get healthier more quickly.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About a Cold

  • How long have you had your cold symptoms?
  • Do you have any illnesses that could be exacerbated by the cold?
  • Are you taking any medications, for your cold or otherwise?
  • Is anyone else at home sick?
  • Can you take time off of work to take care of yourself?

Cold May Also be Known as

Frequently asked questions

  • What are the symptoms of a common cold?

    The symptoms of a common cold include nasal congestion, a runny nose, sneezing, a scratchy throat, and sometimes a cough.
  • How is the common cold contracted?

    The common cold is contracted by breathing in the same air as a person with a cold, touching a person with a cold or an object they've touched, or when your immune system is weakened.
  • How can I prevent catching a cold?

    You can prevent catching a cold by washing your hands regularly, avoiding touching your face, and staying away from people who have a cold.
  • Is there a cure for the common cold?

    No, there is no cure for the common cold. However, symptoms can be managed with rest, hydration, and over-the-counter medications.
  • When should I seek medical attention for a cold?

    You should seek medical attention if your cold persists or worsens over time.
  • What questions might a doctor ask if I have a cold?

    A doctor may ask about the duration of your symptoms, any pre-existing illnesses, current medications, and if anyone else in your home is sick.
  • Can a cold be contracted if my immune system is weakened?

    Yes, having a weakened immune system can increase your risk of contracting a cold.
  • How long does a common cold usually last?

    A common cold usually lasts between seven to 10 days.

Solv has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.

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