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Common cold

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

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Alternative Names

Upper respiratory infection - viral; Cold

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.

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

Turner RB. The common cold. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 369.

Fashner J, Ericson K, Werner S. Treatment of the common cold in children and adults. Am Fam Physician. 2012;86(2):153-159.

Singh M, Das RR. Zinc for the common cold. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2011, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD001364.

Updated: 1/21/2013

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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