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Recommended reading: Fact sheet: The common cold

Colds are a part of life. They are usually harmless and get better on their own within a week. But symptoms like coughing, a sore throat or a headache can be bothersome. This fact sheet describes what you can do to prevent colds, and what can help if you do come down with one.

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A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia [Internet]. Atlanta (GA): A.D.A.M.; 2013.

A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia.

Common cold

Upper respiratory infection - viral; Cold

Last reviewed: January 21, 2013.

The common cold usually causes a runny nose, nasal congestion, and sneezing. You may also have a sore throat, cough, headache, or other symptoms.

Causes

It is called the “common cold” for good reason. There are over one billion colds in the United States each year. You and your children will probably have more colds than any other type of illness.

Colds are the most common reason that children miss school and parents miss work. Parents often get colds from their children.

Children can get many colds every year. They usually get them from other children. A cold can spread quickly through schools or daycares.

Colds can occur at any time of the year, but they are most common in the winter or rainy seasons.

A cold virus spreads through tiny, air droplets that are released when the sick person sneezes, coughs, or blows their nose.

You can catch a cold if:

  • A person with a cold sneezes, coughs, or blows their nose near you
  • You touch your nose, eyes, or mouth after you have touched something contaminated by the virus, such as a toy or doorknob.

People are most contagious for the first 2 to 3 days of a cold. A cold is usually not contagious after the first week.

Sneezing, coughing, and a runny nose are symptoms of:The correct answer is either one. Colds have similar symptoms to allergic rhinitis, a type of allergy that affects the nose. Common triggers of allergic rhinitis include dust and pollen. To figure out whether your stuffy nose comes from a cold or allergies, think about when your symptoms began.If you're allergic to something, a reaction usually begins within:The correct answer is a few seconds or minutes. If you breathe in something you're allergic to, your body releases a chemical called histamine. This quickly triggers allergy symptoms, such as watery eyes or a runny nose. Using an antihistamine can help reduce allergy symptoms.If you're around someone with a cold, you might get sick within:The correct answer is 2-3 days. You can catch a cold if: • A person with a cold sneezes, coughs, or blows their nose near you. • You touch your nose, eyes, or mouth after touching something coated with a cold virus, such as a doorknob. You can help prevent colds by washing your hands or using a hand sanitizer often.Having aches, pains, or a fever means you probably have a cold, not allergies.The correct answer is true. Allergies don't cause achiness or fever. Adults and older children with colds most often have a low fever or no fever. Young children with a cold often run a fever around 100-102°F. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) can help lower a fever. Never give aspirin to children. People with more severe allergies may feel tired.If you have a cough or your throat hurts, you must have a cold.The correct answer is false. Either a cold or allergies can cause cough and a sore throat. Try hard candy or lozenges to ease a sore throat and calm a cough. Avoid using lozenges in children under age 3.A cold usually lasts:The correct answer is 1 week. If you still feel sick after 7 days, see your doctor to rule out a sinus infection, allergies, or other medical problem.Antibiotics can help treat a cold, but not allergies.The correct answer is false. Antibiotics only kill bacteria, not viruses. Colds are caused by viruses, and allergies are caused by allergens. This means antibiotics will not work against colds or allergies. Over-the-counter (OTC) cold medicines can help ease cold symptoms. Don't use any OTC cold remedies in children under age 6.Which can trigger an asthma attack?The correct answer is either one. If you have asthma, a cold or allergies can make it worse. Use your rescue inhaler as prescribed if you begin wheezing. Colds are the most common trigger of asthma symptoms in children. If asthma medicine doesn't help, call your doctor.A thick yellow or green nasal discharge is normal with a cold.The correct answer is true. The fluid from your runny nose will become thicker and may turn yellow or green within a few days. This is normal and does not mean that you need antibiotics. Drinking plenty of fluids can help. If discharge doesn't go away in 10 - 14 days, call your doctor.The most common reason kids miss school and parents miss work is:The correct answer is colds. There are over one billion colds in the United States each year. You and your children will likely have more colds than any other type of illness. Getting plenty of sleep, eating healthy foods, getting plenty of exercise, and not smoking can all help keep your immune system strong and keep you healthier.

Symptoms

Cold symptoms usually start about 2 or 3 days after you came in contact with the virus, although it could take up to a week. Symptoms mostly affect the nose.

The most common cold symptoms are:

Adults and older children with colds generally have a low fever or no fever. Young children often run a fever around 100-102°F.

Depending on which virus caused your cold, you may also have:

Cold symptoms

Treatment

Most colds go away in a few days. Some things you can do to take care of yourself with a cold include:

  • Get plenty of rest and drink fluids.
  • Over-the-counter cold and cough medicines may help ease symptoms in adults and older children. They do not make your cold go away faster, but can help you feel better. Over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold medicines are not recommended for children under age 4.
  • Antibiotics should not be used to treat a common cold.
  • Many alternative treatments have been tried for colds, such as vitamin C, zinc supplements, and echinacea. Talk to your doctor before trying any herbs or supplements.

Outlook (Prognosis)

The fluid from your runny nose will become thicker and may turn yellow or green within a few days. This is normal, and not a reason for antibiotics.

Most cold symptoms usually go away within a week. If you still feel sick after 7 days, see your health care provider to rule out a sinus infection, allergies, or other medical problem.

Possible Complications

Colds are the most common trigger of wheezing in children with asthma.

A cold may also lead to:

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Try treating your cold at home first. Call your health care provider if:

  • You have problems breathing.
  • Your symptoms get worse or do not improve after 7 to 10 days.

Prevention

To lower your chances of getting sick:

  • Always wash your hands. Children and adults should wash hands after nose-wiping, diapering, and using the bathroom, and before eating and preparing food.
  • Disinfect your environment. Clean commonly touched surfaces (such as sink handles, door knobs, and sleeping mats) with an EPA-approved disinfectant.
  • Choose smaller daycare classes for your children.
  • Use instant hand sanitizers to stop the spread of germs.
  • Use paper towels instead of sharing cloth towels.

The immune system helps your body fight off infection. Here are ways to support the immune system:

  • Avoid secondhand smoke. It is responsible for many health problems, including colds.
  • Do not use antibiotics if they are not needed.
  • Breastfeed infants if possible. Breast milk is known to protect against respiratory tract infections in children, even years after you stop breastfeeding.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to help your immune system work properly.
  • Eat yogurt that contains "active cultures." These may help prevent colds. Probiotics may help prevent colds in children.
  • Get enough sleep.

References

  1. Turner RB. The common cold. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 369.
  2. Fashner J, Ericson K, Werner S. Treatment of the common cold in children and adults. Am Fam Physician. 2012;86(2):153-159. [PubMed: 22962927]
  3. Singh M, Das RR. Zinc for the common cold. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2011, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD001364. [PubMed: 21328251]

Review Date: 1/21/2013.

Reviewed by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.

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The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only — they do not constitute endorsementscof those other sites. © 1997–2011 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

Copyright © 2013, A.D.A.M., Inc.

A.D.A.M., Inc. is accredited by URAC, also known as the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission (www.urac.org). URAC's accreditation program is an independent audit to verify that A.D.A.M. follows rigorous standards of quality and accountability. A.D.A.M. is among the first to achieve this important distinction for online health information and services. Learn more about A.D.A.M.'s editorial policy, editorial process and privacy policy. A.D.A.M. is also a founding member of Hi-Ethics and subscribes to the principles of the Health on the Net Foundation (www.hon.ch).

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only — they do not constitute endorsementscof those other sites. © 1997–2011 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

Copyright © 2013, A.D.A.M., Inc.

What works?

  • Chinese medicinal herbs to treat the common coldChinese medicinal herbs to treat the common cold
    The common cold is the most widespread acute respiratory tract illness affecting all age groups. Many Chinese herbal medicines are used to treat this illness in China. Although we included 17 trials, involving 3212 patients, in this review, the risk of bias was so high that the evidence did not support using any Chinese herbal preparation(s) for the common cold. Well‐designed clinical trials are required.
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    Cold symptoms.
    Antibodies.

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