Common Cold Overview

Written by the Healthline Editorial Team | Published on July 30, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Kenneth R. Hirsch, MD on July 30, 2014

Overview

A cold is a common viral infection of the upper respiratory tract—namely, your nose and throat. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Americans “catch” an estimated one billion colds every year. Typical cold symptoms include a runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing, coughing, and a sore throat. Colds can occur at any time during the year but are most common in the winter months.

Colds affect young children more often than adults. Most adults suffer from about two to four colds per year. According to Boston Children’s Hospital, children—those ages 6 and under in particular—may experience up to six to 10 colds annually. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year children miss a total of nearly 22 million school days because of the common cold. It’s also the number one reason for doctor visits in the United States, according to the American Lung Association.  

How Is the Common Cold Contracted?

Colds are spread through direct contact with a person infected by one of the common cold viruses. This contact can come through touching the infected person’s hand or through inhaling contaminated fluid droplets that are spread when the infected person sneezes, coughs, speaks, or wipes their nose. If you are standing near a person with a cold virus, you are at risk. Many surfaces and shared objects such as doorknobs, children’s toys, towels, kitchen utensils, and phones may also be covered with cold virus particles.

Touching an infected person or surface and then touching your nose, mouth, or eyes will often lead to a cold. To infect you, a cold virus needs to reach the mucous membranes, which are the moist, thin layers of tissue that lines the inside of the nose and mouth. During cold season, it is essential to avoid touching your face when out in public and to wash your hands frequently with soap and hot water. Clean home surfaces, children’s toys, and your work area as well to avoid contracting the virus. You might even consider carrying disinfecting wipes in your briefcase or purse.

Cold sufferers are most contagious during the first two to three days of a cold and usually stop being infectious after one full week of the illness.

How Long Do Most Colds Last?

Most colds last for one to two weeks. If cold symptoms linger or if they appear to be worsening, call your doctor. Sometimes, cold symptoms may contribute to the development of a secondary infection like sinusitis, strep throat, bronchitis, and pneumonia.

Therefore, it’s important to see your doctor if symptoms do not improve within 10 days or if you or your child develops a fever of 100.4 F. The CDC recommends calling your doctor if a child under three months develops a fever of any type.

Young children, older adults, and those with chronic health conditions or weakened immune systems are at higher risk for cold-related complications.      

Young children frequently develop ear infections as a result of a cold. Common symptoms of this are if your child has a cold and complains of an earache, develops a fever, or has green or yellow nasal discharge.  If your infant has cold symptoms and is not sleeping well or crying incessantly, these are symptoms as well. Call your pediatrician if ear infection symptoms are present. 

Was this article helpful? Yes No

Thank you.

Your message has been sent.

We're sorry, an error occurred.

We are unable to collect your feedback at this time. However, your feedback is important to us. Please try again later.


Show Sources

Recommended for You

Why You Want to Avoid Aconite
Why You Want to Avoid Aconite
Aconite contains toxins that will do more bad than good.
8 Essential Benefits of Green Tea
8 Essential Benefits of Green Tea
Green tea is derived from the leaves of the flowering shrub Camellia sinensis. Discover 8 benefits of green tea, from healthy skin to a good night's rest.
Hepatitis C Prevention: Is Hepatitis Contagious?
Hepatitis C Prevention: Is Hepatitis Contagious?
Hepatitis is a contagious disease. Find out how it spreads, ways to avoid contracting it, if you’re at risk, as well as what to do if you think you have it.
Can You Have the Flu Without a Fever?
Can You Have the Flu Without a Fever?
Influenza, or “flu” for short, is caused by the influenza virus. One common symptom is a fever. Learn if it always accompanies the flu and other symptoms.
12 Ways Sex Helps You Live Longer
12 Ways Sex Helps You Live Longer
A healthy sex life is essential to a healthy life—and can even help you to live longer.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement