Health Conditions

Common Cold

The common cold is a viral infection of your upper respiratory tract, your nose and throat. Because any one of more than 100 viruses can cause a common cold, signs and symptoms tend to vary greatly.


Symptoms of a common cold usually appear about one to three days after exposure, and last one to two weeks.

Signs and symptoms of a common cold may include:

  • runny or stuffy nose
  • itchy or sore throat
  • cough
  • congestion
  • body aches or a mild headache
  • sneezing
  • watery eyes
  • low-grade fever
  • mild fatigue

The discharge from your nose may become thicker and yellow or green in color as a common cold runs its course.

What makes a cold different from influenza is that you generally won't have a high fever.

You're also unlikely to experience significant fatigue from a common cold.

When to Seek Medical Attention

Seek medical attention if you have:

  • a fever of 103°F (39.4°C) or higher
  • fever accompanied by sweating, chills, and a cough with colored phlegm
  • significantly swollen glands
  • if symptoms last longer than ten days

Treatments and Drugs

There's no cure for a viral upper respiratory infection.

Antibiotics are of no use against cold viruses.

To alleviate your symptoms:

  • take a pain reliever. For fever, sore throat, and headache many people turn to acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil).

  • drink lots of fluids. Water, juice, clear broth, or warm lemon water are all good choices. They help replace fluids lost during mucus production or fever. Avoid alcohol and caffeine, which can cause dehydration, and cigarette smoke, which can aggravate your symptoms.

  • eat chicken soup. Scientists have put chicken soup to the test, discovering that it does seem to help relieve cold and flu symptoms in two ways. First, it acts as an anti-inflammatory by inhibiting the movement of neutrophils, immune system cells that help the body's response to inflammation. Second, it temporarily speeds up the movement of mucus through the nose, helping relieve congestion and limiting the time viruses are in contact with the nasal lining.

  • get plenty of rest. If possible, stay home from work if you have a fever or a bad cough or are drowsy after the medications. This will give you a chance to rest as well as reduce the chances that you'll infect others.

  • adjust your room's temperature and humidity. Keep your room warm, but not overheated. If the air is dry, a cool-mist humidifier or vaporizer can moisten the air and help ease congestion and coughing.

  • soothe your throat. A saltwater gargle, 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon (1.2 milliliters to 2.5 milliliters) salt dissolved in an 8-ounce (237 milliliters) glass of warm water, can temporarily relieve a sore or scratchy throat.

  • use saline nasal drops. To help relieve nasal congestion, try saline nasal drops. You can buy these drops over-the-counter, and they're effective, safe, and nonirritating.

Alternative medicine

  • Zinc: Zinc administered within 24 hours of onset of symptoms reduces the duration and severity of the common cold in healthy people; however researchers haven’t determined the most effective dose.

  • Vitamin C: It appears that for the most part taking vitamin C won't help the average person prevent colds. However, taking vitamin C at the onset of cold symptoms may shorten the duration of symptoms.


The flu shot does not prevent the common cold, which can be caused by many different viruses.

A cold virus enters your body through your mouth or nose.

The virus can spread through droplets in the air when someone who is sick coughs, sneezes, or talks. But it also spreads by hand-to-hand contact with someone who has a cold or by using shared objects, such as utensils, towels, toys, or telephones.

If you touch your eyes, nose, or mouth after such contact or exposure, you're likely to "catch" a cold.

But you can take some precautions to slow the spread of cold viruses:

  • Wash your hands. Clean your hands thoroughly and often.

  • Scrub your stuff. Keep kitchen and bathroom countertops clean, especially when someone in your family has a common cold.

  • Use tissues. Always sneeze and cough into tissues. Discard used tissues right away, and then wash your hands carefully. Sneeze or cough into the bend of your elbow when you don't have a tissue.

  • Don't share. Don't share drinking glasses or utensils with other family members.

  • Steer clear of colds. Avoid close, prolonged contact with anyone who has a cold.

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