Common cold health facts
- The common cold is a viral infection affecting the nose and throat in the upper respiratory tract.
- A cold can be tough to deal with, but is usually not serious. However, it can cause symptoms in adults and children that require seeking care from a primary care provider.
- Having a cold is the # 1 reason adults miss work and children miss school.
- The condition usually resolves on its own in 7-10 days.
- There is no cure for the common cold, so treatment focuses on alleviating symptoms, which include cough, runny nose, congestion and sore throat.
Jump to a topic:
- What is the common cold?
- When is a cold contagious?
- What causes a cold?
- Cold symptoms
- Cold treatments
- When to go to a medical professional for a cold
What is the common cold?
A cold is a type of viral infection of the upper respiratory tract that affects the nose and throat. Having a cold is a common experience that most commonly occurs in the winter and spring, although adults and children can get a cold any time of year.
According to the CDC, children are at the greatest risk of catching a cold. Children, particularly those under age 6, get more colds than healthy adults, who average two to three colds a year.
Some people are at greater risk than others for catching a cold (see below, What causes a cold and what are risk factors?).
Most of the time, people get over a cold on their own and only experience uncomfortable symptoms. But when certain symptoms occur, seeking attention from a HealthFit provider is necessary to prevent further complications (See below, When to see a doctor)
When is a cold contagious?
A person is contagious for the first three days of sickness. Most people get over their cold within 7-10 days.
Catching a cold: what causes a cold?
Rhinoviruses are the type of virus that most often cause a cold. The viral infection enters the body through the mouth, eyes or nose. A cold is spread by:
- Droplets in the air when someone who has a cold sneezes, coughs or talks.
- By hand-to-hand contact with someone who has a cold.
- By touching a surface that has been infected by moisture droplets with the virus, then touching the nose, eyes or mouth.
Risk of catching a cold
Some people are at greater risk of getting a cold, and should be more active in taking precautions. The following factors increase one’s risk of infection with the common cold:
- Being a child under age 6, particularly children in daycare with other kids.
- Similarly, anyone around groups of people, such as in a school or on a bus.
- Smoking, which makes catching a cold more likely and increases the chance that it will be a more severe cold.
- A weakened immune system, as well as having a chronic disease.
Virtually everyone is familiar with symptoms of a cold, whether having them or seeing them in others. Symptoms usually come on within three days of being exposed to the virus. People can experience various symptoms, including:
- Sore throat.
- Stuffy or runny nose.
- Achy body.
- Sneezing and/or coughing.
- Mild fever.
- Generally feeling unwell, known as malaise.
Cold symptoms in babies
Parents need to be attentive to signs of a cold in newborns and young infants. It’s important to take the child for medical evaluation at the first sign of cold symptoms so our providers can rule out pneumonia or other serious conditions such as croup (an infection that makes breathing difficult and produces a nasty sounding cough).
Babies can’t describe some of the symptoms they experience, such as sore throat or achiness. However, parents should be on the lookout for the following visible symptoms:
- Runny nose.
- Nasal discharge that may thicken and become green or yellow.
- Trouble nursing or bottle feeding (due to nasal difficulty).
- Poor appetite.
- Not sleeping well.
Common cold treatments
A cold can’t be cured, and over-the-counter (OTC) cold medications will not make a cold go away any faster, but medications can reduce cold symptoms in adults. Always talk to a medical provider before giving a child OTC cold medicines.
We advise people with a cold to get lots of rest and to drink plenty of fluids.
How to stop a cold
Combat symptoms with home or OTC remedies.
- Gargle with warm water to soothe a sore throat.
- Try cold medicines.
- Sip on warm liquids.
- Take medications to reduce body aches and pains.
- Use a saline nasal solution to combat nasal congestion.
- Add moisture to the air with a humidifier.
When to see primary care doctor/provider for a cold
It’s important to schedule an appointment with a HealthFit provider if cold symptoms do not improve. This may be an indication of a bacterial infection, and antibiotics may be needed.
Adults should seek our care when they have a fever over 101.3 degrees (Fahrenheit), a fever that lasts longer than five days, or that returns after initially going away. Other signs to see a doctor/provider are shortness of breath, bad throat or sinus pain, and severe headaches.
Avoiding bronchitis & pneumonia
People who have asthma, respiratory conditions or a weak immune system should be more attentive to seeking care for a cold, as they are at risk of developing serious conditions such as bronchitis and pneumonia.
Seeking care for babies and children
If the baby is less than 3 months old, parents should call us early on in the illness. We need to make sure the illness isn’t a sign of a more serious condition.
For babies 3 months or older, call or come see us when the baby:
- Has a temperature higher than 100.4 degrees.
- Is unusually irritable.
- Has discharge at the eyes or has red eyes.
- Wets fewer diapers than normal.
- Has difficulty breathing or has nasal discharge of a green color for a few days.
- Exhibits other symptoms that cause the parent to worry.
For older children, see a medical provider when:
- Fever is 100.4 degrees or higher, the fever is rising, or a fever lasts for three or more days.
- Symptoms don’t improve or are severe.
- Ear pain develops.
- He or she is unusually irritable or sleepy.
Take the next steps at HealthFit
Cold symptoms that get worse and do not go away after 10 days can be cause for concern in adults, and particularly so for children. For HealthFit patients, we offer same-day appointments for serious colds and other acute care needs.