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How to Identify, Treat, and Prevent a Head Cold

Overview

Key pointss

  1. A head cold is another term for the common cold.
  2. Symptoms of a head cold can include headache, stuffy nose, or sore throat. A chest cold causes symptoms in the chest, like congestion or cough.
  3. Most people recover from a head cold in seven to 10 days.

The head cold, also known as the common cold, is usually a mild illness, but it can impact your daily life. In addition to sneezes, sniffles, coughs, and a sore throat, a head cold can leave you feeling tired, rundown, and generally unwell for several days.

Adults get two or three cases of the head cold each year. Kids can catch eight or more of these illnesses annually. Colds are the main reason why kids stay home from school and adults miss work.

Most colds are mild and last about a week. But some people, especially those with a weakened immune system, can develop more serious illnesses as a complication of a head cold, such as bronchitis, a sinus infection, or pneumonia.

Learn how to spot the symptoms of a head cold and find out how to treat your symptoms if you do come down with a cold.

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Head cold vs. chest cold

What’s the difference between a head cold and a chest cold?

You might have heard the terms “head cold” and “chest cold.” All colds are basically respiratory infections caused by a virus. The difference in terms usually refers to the location of your symptoms.

A “head cold” involves symptoms in your head, like a stuffed, runny nose and watery eyes. With a “chest cold,” you’ll have chest congestion and a cough. Viral bronchitis is sometimes called a “chest cold.” Like colds, viruses also cause viral bronchitis.

Symptoms

Head cold symptoms

One way to know whether you’ve caught a head cold is by the symptoms. These include:

  • a stuffed or runny nose
  • sneezing
  • sore throat
  • cough
  • low-grade fever
  • general ill feeling
  • mild body aches or headache

Head cold symptoms usually appear one to three days after you’ve been exposed to the virus. Your symptoms should last for seven to 10 days.

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Sinus infection

Head cold vs. sinus infection

A head cold and sinus infection share many of the same symptoms, including:

  • congestion
  • dripping nose
  • headache
  • cough
  • sore throat

Yet their causes are different. Viruses cause colds. Although viruses can cause sinus infections, often these illnesses are due to bacteria.

You get a sinus infection when bacteria or other germs grow in the air-filled spaces behind your cheeks, forehead, and nose. Additional symptoms include:

  • discharge from your nose, which may be a greenish color
  • postnasal drip, which is mucus that runs down the back of your throat
  • pain or tenderness in your face, especially around your eyes, nose, cheeks, and forehead
  • pain or ache in your teeth
  • reduced sense of smell
  • fever
  • fatigue
  • bad breath

Cold

What causes a head cold?

Colds are caused by viruses, most commonly rhinoviruses. Other viruses that are responsible for colds include:

Bacteria don’t cause colds. That’s why antibiotics won’t work to treat a cold.

Learn more: Common cold causes »

You catch a cold when someone who’s infected sneezes or coughs, and sprays droplets containing the virus into the air. Another way to get sick is by touching surfaces, like doorknobs, phones, or toys, that have the virus on them. The virus can get into your body when you touch your eyes, nose, or mouth.

You’re more likely to catch a cold if you have a weakened immune system or you smoke. Colds spread more in the fall and winter months than in the spring and summer.

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See a doctor

When should you see a doctor?

Colds are usually mild illnesses. You shouldn’t need to see a doctor for general cold symptoms like a stuffed nose, sneezing, and coughing. Do see a doctor if you have these more serious symptoms:

  • trouble breathing or wheezing
  • a fever higher than 101.3°F (38.5°C)
  • a severe sore throat
  • a severe headache, especially with a fever
  • a cough that is hard to stop or that doesn’t go away
  • ear pain
  • pain around your nose, eyes, or forehead that doesn’t go away
  • rash
  • extreme fatigue
  • confusion

Call your doctor if your symptoms haven’t improved after seven days, or if they get worse. You could have one of these complications, which develop in a small number of people who get colds:

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Treatment

Treatment

You can’t cure a cold. Antibiotics kill bacteria, not the viruses that cause colds.

Your symptoms should improve within a few days. Until then, here are a few things you can do to make yourself more comfortable:

  • Take it easy. Rest as much as you can to give your body time to recover.
  • Drink lots of fluids, preferably water and fruit juices. Stay away from caffeinated drinks like soda and coffee. They’ll dehydrate you even more. Also avoid alcohol until you feel better.
  • Soothe your sore throat. Gargle with a mixture of 1/2 teaspoon salt and 8 ounces of water a few times a day. Suck on a lozenge. Drink hot tea or soup broth. Or use a sore throat spray.
  • Open up clogged nasal passages. A saline spray can help loosen up mucus in your nose. You can also try a decongestant spray, but stop using it after three days. Using decongestant sprays for longer than three days can lead to rebound stuffiness.
  • Use a vaporizer or humidifier in your room while you sleep to ease congestion.
  • Take a pain reliever. For mild aches, you can try an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin). Aspirin (Bufferin, Bayer Aspirin) is fine for adults, but avoid its use in children and teens. It can cause a rare but serious illness called Reye syndrome.

If you use an OTC cold remedy, check the box. Make sure you only take medicine that treats the symptoms you have. Don’t give cold medicines to children under age 6.

Read more: 11 cold and flu home remedies »

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Outlook

Outlook

Usually colds clear up within a week to 10 days. Less often, a cold can develop into a more serious infection, like pneumonia or bronchitis. If your symptoms continue for more than 10 days, or if they are getting worse, see your doctor.

Prevention

Tips for prevention

Especially during cold season, which is in the fall and winter, take these steps to avoid getting sick:

  • Avoid anyone who looks and acts sick. Ask them to sneeze and cough into their elbow, rather than into the air.
  • Wash your hands. After you shake hands or touch common surfaces, wash your hands with warm water and soap. Or, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to kill germs.
  • Keep your hands away from your face. Don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth, which are areas where germs can easily enter your body.
  • Don’t share. Use your own glasses, utensils, towels, and other personal items.
  • Boost your immunity. You’ll be less likely to catch a cold if your immune system is working at peak capacity. Eat a well-rounded diet, get seven to nine hours of sleep nightly, exercise, and manage stress to stay healthy.
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