Key Points about the Common Cold

  • The common cold is a viral respiratory infection that can cause coughing or sneezing, a runny nose, sore throat, and fatigue.
  • The viruses responsible for colds can spread via saliva, skin-to-skin contact, or shared objects infected with the virus.
  • The common cold does not usually require a professional diagnosis or medical treatment.
  • Call your doctor if you are struggling to breathe or swallow, if you have a fever that persists past three days, or if your symptoms have not improved within two weeks.

Overview

Upper respiratory infections, also known as the common cold, are contagious, often short-term infections that affect the airways, nose, and throat. A variety of viruses can be responsible for the common cold, and they can spread from person to person through saliva, skin contact, or sharing infected objects.

Symptoms of the common cold usually disappear within two weeks, and often include coughing or sneezing, a runny nose and a sore throat—resulting from increased mucus production. The common cold does not usually require medical treatment, and can be managed at home by staying hydrated, resting adequately, and taking over-the-counter pain medicines as needed.

Common cold causes

The common cold can be caused by any of over 200 viruses. These viruses can spread from person to person via:

  • Direct skin contact
  • Sharing drinks
  • Kissing
  • A cough or sneeze containing saliva droplets
  • Touching a surface that is infected with the virus

Common cold risk factors

Anyone is at risk of developing a cold, but your risk may increase if you:

  • Spend time in crowded places or hospitals
  • Have an autoimmune disease
  • Are often in close contact with children
  • Smoke tobacco
  • Rarely wash your hands

Common cold symptoms

Common cold symptoms should last for less than two weeks. Symptoms may include:

  • Increased mucus production
  • Congestion or a runny nose
  • Coughing or sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Discomfort, pain, or pressure in the nose or face
  • Mild fever

Common cold prevention

It is challenging—if not impossible—to avoid the common cold completely. You can decrease your risk of being infected, however, by:

  • Washing your hands often
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Maintaining a healthy diet
  • Refraining from smoking
  • Avoiding crowded places
  • Refraining from sharing food and drinks with others

Common cold diagnosis

The common cold usually does not require medical treatment. If your symptoms are severe and persistent, you may want to consult a doctor to rule out other illnesses.

Common cold treatment

The common cold can be treated at home by:

  • Staying hydrated
  • Getting plenty of rest
  • Taking over-the-counter pain relievers or fever reducers
  • Using a humidifier in your bedroom

When to seek care

If your symptoms do not go away on their own, it is possible that your infection is progressing to something else. Call your doctor if:

  • You are struggling to breathe or swallow
  • You have a fever that persists past three days
  • Your symptoms haven’t improved within two weeks

Next Steps

If your common cold recurs often, your doctor may want to assess whether an underlying condition is contributing to your symptoms.