Common Cold


A common cold is an acute upper respiratory tract infection usually caused by a family of viruses known as rhinoviruses. The infection is usually mild, but often sends people to the doctor thinking they may have the flu or a sinus infection. The symptoms of the common cold are nasal stuffiness and discharge, sneezing, sore throat, and a cough. Colds most often occur during the fall and winter months but can also happen during the spring and summer. A cold usually lasts anywhere from one or two weeks and clears up on its own. Statistics show that the common cold accounts for over 22 million missed school days in the US every year. The adult population averages around two to four colds a year per person, and kids get about six to ten colds every year. This upper respiratory infection is a troublesome virus that causes millions of people to miss school, work, or other important functions every year.

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The symptoms of a common cold are consistent with the symptoms of most upper respiratory tract infections. Around 25% of people who have a cold may not show any indicators at all. The symptoms of a common cold include:

  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Stuffy nose
  • Low-grade fever
  • Sneezing
  • Hoarseness
  • Headache

In some cases, symptoms may be similar to the flu and you may feel:

  • Chills
  • Achy muscles
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite

Risk Factors

The season. Colds tend to be more prevalent in the fall and winter months. For many years, doctors have thought the reason behind this is that people tend to stay indoors in closed-off environments, which can facilitate the spread of the virus. Also, recent studies have shown that the body’s ability to fight off the cold viruses is diminished when the internal temperature of the nose decreases, and this can happen while spending time outdoors during the colder months.

Age. Colds are more common in babies and children because they have more immature immune systems. They also tend to put toys in their mouths and do not always wash their hands.

Immune system function. If you have a chronic health condition or are elderly, your immune system may be less able to fight off a cold virus.

Bronchitis and asthma. People who have asthma or are susceptible to bronchitis have an increased risk of developing a life-threatening exacerbation of symptoms.


If you have the symptoms above and are not sure if you are suffering from a cold, influenza, or a bacterial infection you should go see your doctor. The doctor will ask you a few questions about how long you have been feeling unwell and what your symptoms are. They will most likely look for the following physical signs of a cold:

  • Mild fever
  • Redness inside the nose
  • Clear, watery discharge (Less than 10 days)
  • Red throat

If your throat is red, the doctor may take a swab to culture for strep infection. If you are coughing and wheezing, you may need to have a chest x-ray.


While your grandmother may swear by chicken soup for a cold, there is no known cure for the cold. Since it is not a bacterial infection, antibiotics will not help. Some over-the-counter medications can help relieve symptoms if they are severe. These are:

Pain medications. Your doctor may suggest over-the-counter pain medications to help relieve your fever, headache, and sore throat. These should not be given to infants less than 3 months old. It is not safe to use aspirin or aspirin-based products in children and teenagers that are suffering from viral infections as it can cause a severe reaction called Reye’s syndrome.

Nasal decongestants. Decongestant sprays can help relieve nasal congestion. These products should not be used for more than the duration of the cold due to a rebound effect. They should also not be used by children.

Nasal strips. Nasal strips are a safe and effective way to help open up nasal passages in both adults and children. They stick on the outside of the nose and pull passages open.

Cough medicine. Cough medicine can help loosen mucus and quiet coughs. Some are cold preparations for a few different medications to relieve all symptoms and help you sleep. There are even “daytime” preparations that are non-drowsy.

Eat healthily. Try to eat a healthy diet when you are sick. Eat things that are tolerable if you have a sore throat. One popular cold remedy is a hot bowl of chicken soup. Researchers have found that chicken soup has anti-inflammatory properties that relieve symptoms and may help speed up healing from colds. The warmth can also help relieve congestion in the nose.

Keep the humidity high. Humid air will relieve congestion, scratchy throats, and quiet your cough. Make sure your humidifier is clean and try to use filtered or bottled water.

Rest and fluids. One of the best and most highly recommended cold treatments is plain old rest! Your doctor will most likely recommend that you go home, rest, and drink plenty of fluids. Stay home from work or school if you can which will help prevent spread to others.

Alternative Treatments and Home Remedies

Hot tea with honey and lemon. Any hot beverage can help to thin mucus. Honey can soothe a sore throat and can help boost the immune system. Take tea and add honey with a squeeze of lemon juice.

Netipot. These use a gentle saline solution to rinse out the sinus cavity. This can help rinse out irritants and possibly even prevent bacterial infections from forming.

Eucalyptus. Eucalyptus can help relieve congestion helping you to breathe better. Place a few drops on a warm washcloth and hold over your nose. You can also place a few drops of eucalyptus oil into your humidifier cup.

Echinacea. Some research has shown that if echinacea is taken in the first few days of the onset of cold symptoms, the duration and severity may be less. If you have an immune system disorder, echinacea is not recommended.

Lifestyle Changes

A few lifestyle changes can help lessen the severity of colds and possibly even prevent you from getting one in the first place. These include:

Wash your hands often. It has been scientifically proven that washing your hands is the single most effective prevention against any infection. Wash your hands often and keep hand sanitizer with you.

Use disinfectant wipes provided for shopping carts. When you grab a cart at the store, use the provided wipes to clean the handle.

Drink plenty of fluids. During a cold, you need extra fluids to help keep mucus thin. Your body also needs extra fluids to help it heal.

Steer clear of crowds. If you catch colds easily or have a very young baby, steer clear of crowds during the cold season.


Allan, G. M. & Arroll, B. (2014, February 18). Prevention and treatment of the common cold: Making sense of the evidence. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 186(3),190-199. Retrieved from:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, August 26). Influenza (flu): Schools & childcare providers. Retrieved from

Heikkinen, T. &Järvinen, A. (2003, January 04). The common cold. The Lancet, 361. Retrieved from:

Karsh-Völk, M.(2014, February 20). Echinacea for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database ofSystematic Reviews. Retrieved from:

Spector, S. L. (1995, May). The common cold: Current therapy and natural history.  Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Retrieved from:


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