Symptoms of the Common Cold

  • Runny nose (discharge is usually clear, but may be yellow, or greenish)
  • Sneezing
  • Sore or scratchy throat, with hoarseness
  • Coughing
  • Inflamed membranes in the nose and throat, which may cause discomfort day and night
  • Fatigue and general malaise
  • Occasional low-grade fever (more often found in children than adults)
  • Muscle aches and pains

What Is the Common Cold?

Just about everyone gets colds—a general term referring to a group of minor but highly contagious upper respiratory viral infections that cause inflammation of the mucous linings of the nose and throat. Symptoms generally develop one to two days after exposure to the virus, and anyone with a common cold is contagious for about two to three days, starting the day before symptoms appear.

There is no cure, but there are measures that alleviate symptoms during recovery, which generally takes about a week. Scientists estimate that there are as many as 200 different cold viruses, the most common being the rhinoviruses (nose viruses), which are estimated to cause 30 percent of all colds.

No one knows what makes a person susceptible to colds in general or to any particular cold. Although newborns are thought to be immune to 20 percent of rhinoviruses (they get the antibodies from their mothers), they quickly lose their immunity. Small children are the most susceptible to colds, and can have six or eight a year. People who spend a lot of time with children, such as teachers, also tend to have numerous colds.

There is also evidence that smokers are more likely to catch colds and to have longer-lasting symptoms than nonsmokers. Tobacco smoke paralyzes the hairlike projections that line the nose and throat. Thus, these cilia are less efficient at moving mucus out.

In one sense every cold is your last—from that particular virus for a period of time. One compensation for growing older is that you develop immunity to a progressively larger number of viruses and thus catch fewer colds. By age 60, most people have an average of one cold per year, if any.

What Causes the Common Cold?

Researchers know more than they used to about how colds are transmitted and about the viruses that cause them. Rhinoviruses tend to infect people in late summer and early autumn. Other types of viruses, not so well understood, are more likely to cause winter and early spring colds.

A sure way to “catch” a cold virus to which you are not already immune is to get a dose of it directly in the upper nose, where the temperature and humidity are ideal for its growth. In laboratory experiments, putting rhinovirus in the noses of volunteers almost always gives them a cold, no matter what their state of physical or emotional resistance or whether they are cold and wet or warm and dry.

Three possibilities exist for the way cold viruses get into your nasal passages: they may travel through the air (from the sneezing or coughing of others); they may be transmitted through direct contact (shaking hands with a cold sufferer, for example, and then touching your eyes or nose); or they may spread via a telephone, toy, or cup used by a cold sufferer. One study has found that airborne transmission is common in adults, whereas children tend to transmit secretions directly.

But, in fact, unless the virus gains access to the upper nose, the body has many lines of defense against it. Simply putting a cold virus near the nose usually has no effect, because it cannot penetrate the skin. The mucous membranes of the mouth are usually an effective barrier, so that kissing is not an efficient way to spread a cold. Simply being in the same room with a cold sufferer won’t do it. Workers in the same office usually don’t share colds. They may have colds at the same time, but they are usually due to different viruses.

Family members, though, do tend to share their colds. The three factors that primarily influence transmission are the amount of time spent around the cold sufferer, the volume of his secretions, and the amount of virus in them.

What if You Do Nothing about a Common Cold?

People seldom develop serious complications from colds. The discomfort can be debilitating‚ but a cold is by definition temporary and self-limiting. Most colds last a week or less, but two-week colds are not unheard of.

Home Remedies for the Common Cold

Colds cannot be cured by antibiotics, including penicillin, or any other drug. Nor is it wise to take antibiotics in an attempt to prevent later bacterial infection. Take antibiotics only when your doctor prescribes them—and certainly don’t take them on your own for a cold or flu.

Your symptoms, however uncomfortable, are a sign that your body’s defenses are working against the virus. Keep the following pointers in mind for your general well-being.

  • Don’t automatically "take something" for a cold. Over-the-counter cold remedies won’t necessarily make you feel better. If you do use them, do so sparingly. Also, don’t insist on giving medicine or vitamins to a child. Many cold medications made for adults contain ingredients that are harmful when taken by children.
  • Gargle to ease a sore throat. A salt or sugar-water gargle (one-quarter teaspoon of salt or one tablespoon of Karo syrup added to eight ounces of water) can be helpful in relieving sore throat symptoms.
  • Saline nose drops may clear nasal passages. Like the gargle, these can also be made with one-quarter teaspoon of salt to eight ounces of water.
  • Choose your fluids. “Drink plenty of fluids” is time-honored advice, but there is no evidence that increasing fluid intake will do anything but increase the need to urinate. Drink as many fluids as you want—they ease a dry throat—but you don’t need to force yourself or anyone else to consume liquids. Hot drinks, on the other hand, are definitely comforting. In one study chicken soup (as compared with cold water and hot water) was shown to increase the flow of nasal secretions. The taste and aroma was thought to be part of the therapy, as well as inhalation of the vapor. Some other hot soup might do as well, if you prefer it. Tea with honey isn’t bad, either.
  • Skip the hot toddies. Hot alcoholic beverages or a shot of brandy may sound tempting, but alcohol dilates blood vessels and may produce more nasal congestion. Overindulgence, obviously, may bring on stomach upset and headache. Pregnant women are advised never to drink.
  • Rest if you feel like it. Bed rest will not cure a cold or even alleviate symptoms, but if you feel exhausted or your symptoms are distractingly painful, rest at home—either in bed or just around the house.
  • Increased humidity in the air you breathe can sometimes make you feel better, at least temporarily. Hot-water vaporizers offer some advantages, but can cause burns and scalding. For safety’s sake, use a cool-mist vaporizer or humidifier. There is no value in adding medications to the water. Remember that humidifiers can harbor molds, which may cause allergic reactions. Clean the tank daily, rinsing with a mild solution of chlorine bleach and refilling with fresh water.
  • Ease up on exercise. There’s no harm in exercising if you feel up to it, but you should never force yourself if you feel too tired or unfit, or if you have a fever. A break of two or three days in your exercise program won’t be a significant setback.
  • Soothe your red, sore nose and lips. The irritation, which is caused by mucous secretions and aggravated by nose blowing, can often be relieved with petroleum jelly or skin lotion.
  • Consider keeping kids at home for a day. If a child has a cold, going to school will do him no harm. But for the protection of other children, a child in the first stages who has a severe runny nose should probably stay at home. The most infectious period generally begins about a day before symptoms appear and lasts only another day or two.

Prevention of the Common Cold

  • Wash your hands—often. The most effective way to keep a cold from spreading is hand washing. If you have a cold, remember that it spreads via your fingers, so wash them often in soap and warm water. If you are around people with colds, wash your hands often and try to avoid putting your fingers to your nose and eyes.
  • Try not to share objects with cold sufferers. This means not touching their telephones, pencils, typewriters and other tools, drinking glasses, or towels. Paper towels and paper cups are worthwhile investments during cold season. See that used tissues are disposed of promptly and properly. They should be discarded in a plastic-lined receptacle or paper bag, or in any manner that makes rehandling them unnecessary.

When To Call Your Doctor

There is virtually nothing a doctor can do for a cold. But contact your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms, which may seem coldlike but can indicate something more serious.

  • High fever
  • Severe pain in the stomach, chest, head, or ears
  • Enlarged neck glands
  • Fever, sore throat, or severe runny nose that persists for more than a week
  • For children: Shortness of breath or wheezing (particularly difficult breathing), marked irritability or lethargy.

Don't assume that a nasal discharge that thickens and looks greenish indicates a bacterial infection. By itself, a greenish secretion is nothing to worry about. It is not caused by invading bacteria, but is part of your immune system’s response to the cold virus, and does not call for antibiotics.

What Your Doctor Will Do

The ears, nose, throat, and chest will be examined, and a chest x-ray may be taken. If a bacterial infection is diagnosed, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic. But if a cold is found to be uncomplicated, home treatment is the most likely recommendation.

For More Information about the Common Cold

  • National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 29 Jul 2010

Last Modified: 17 Nov 2014