The common cold is a viral infection of your upper respiratory tract — your nose and throat. A common cold is usually harmless, although it may not feel that way. If it's not a runny nose, sore throat and cough, it's the watery eyes, sneezing and congestion — or maybe all of the above. In fact, because any one of more than 100 viruses can cause a common cold, signs and symptoms tend to vary greatly.
Preschool children are at greatest risk of frequent colds, but even healthy adults can expect to have a few colds each year.
Most people recover from a common cold in about a week or two. If symptoms don't improve, see your doctor.
Symptoms of a common cold usually appear about one to three days after exposure to a cold-causing virus. Signs and symptoms of a common cold may include:
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 other viral infections is that you generally won't have a high fever. You're also unlikely to experience significant fatigue from a common cold.
When to see a doctor
For adults — seek medical attention if you have:
For children — in general, children are sicker with a common cold than adults are and often develop complications, such as ear infections. Your child doesn't need to see the doctor for a routine common cold. But seek medical attention right away if your child has any of the following signs or symptoms:
If symptoms in a child or an adult last longer than 10 days, call your doctor.
Although more than 100 viruses can cause a common cold, the rhinovirus is the most common culprit, and it's highly contagious.
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.
Cold viruses are almost always present in the environment. But the following factors can increase your chances of getting a cold:
If you or your child has a cold, you're likely to start by seeing your family doctor, a general practitioner or your child's pediatrician.
Because appointments can be brief, and because there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to be well prepared for your appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and what to expect from your doctor.
Information to prepare in advance
Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. For common cold, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment at any time that you don't understand something.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may allow more time later to cover other points you want to address. Your doctor may ask:
What you can do in the meantime
While you're waiting for your appointment, get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids.
There's no cure for the common cold. Antibiotics are of no use against cold viruses. Over-the-counter (OTC) cold preparations won't cure a common cold or make it go away any sooner, and most have side effects. Here's a look at the pros and cons of some common cold remedies.
Cough syrups. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommend against giving OTC cough and cold medicines to children younger than age 2. Over-the-counter cough and cold medicines don't effectively treat the underlying cause of a child's cold, and won't cure a child's cold or make it go away any sooner. These medications also have potential side effects, including rapid heart rate and convulsions.
In June 2008, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association voluntarily modified consumer product labels on OTC cough and cold medicines to state "do not use" in children under 4 years of age, and many companies have stopped manufacturing these products for young children.
FDA experts are studying the safety of cough and cold medicines for children older than age 2. In the meantime, remember that cough and cold medicines won't make a cold go away any sooner — and side effects are still possible. If you give cough or cold medicines to an older child, carefully follow the label directions. Don't give your child two medicines with the same active ingredient, such as an antihistamine, decongestant or pain reliever. Too much of a single ingredient could lead to an accidental overdose.
You may not be able to cure your common cold, but you can make yourself as comfortable as possible. These tips may help:
Various herbs and supplements are popular for preventing or relieving colds, but scientific support is uneven for most. Here's an update on some popular choices:
No vaccine has been developed for the common cold, which can be caused by many different viruses. But you can take some common-sense precautions to slow the spread of cold viruses: