What is the common cold?

The common cold, also known as an upper respiratory infection, is a virus that infects the upper respiratory tract – your nose, mouth and throat.

More than 3 million people develop common colds each year. They are typically self-diagnosable, self-treatable and resolve within a few days or as long as a few weeks.

Common related conditions
Ear Infection Sinusitis Flu

Causes of common cold

An upper respiratory infection can be caused by over 200 different viruses, but rhinoviruses are the most common culprit.

Cold viruses are contagious and spread through the air, direct contact and surface contact. The virus typically enters the body through the mouth, nose or eyes.

Risk factors for common cold

Children are most at risk for an upper respiratory infection due to their less-developed immune systems and close proximity to other kids, although everyone is susceptible to colds. Most children and adults will have a cold at least once each year.

Other factors that increase your risk of upper respiratory infections include:

  • Weak immune system — those with diseases such as HIV, cancer or diabetes may be more likely to develop an upper respiratory infection.
  • Smoking — people who smoke are more likely to frequently develop common colds and severe colds.
  • Healthcare environment — if you work in a healthcare environment or are or have been a patient, you are more likely to develop a cold.

Symptoms of common cold

Symptoms of an upper respiratory infection include:

  • Runny nose
  • Nasal and head congestion
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Post-nasal drip
  • Congestion
  • Mild body aches
  • Sneezing
  • Low fever

Diagnosis of common cold

An upper respiratory infection can be diagnosed in a physical exam by your primary care provider, but it is typically identified easily by its symptoms. If your doctor thinks you have a bacterial infection, he or she may order a chest x-ray to determine the cause.

Treatments for common cold

There isn’t a cure for the common cold, so the goal of treatment is symptom relief.  Since an upper respiratory infection is viral, antibiotics aren’t an effective treatment.

Treatments include:

  • Pain reliever such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen
  • Warm, hydrating fluids
  • Decongestants — over-the-counter or prescription dependent on severity of symptoms
  • Saline nasal spray to clear out the nasal passages

If you are an adult and have the following symptoms, contact your doctor:

  • Fever over 101.3 F
  • Fever that lasts more than five days
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing

If your child has the following symptoms, contact your pediatrician or family doctor:

  • Fever over 100.4 F
  • Fever that lasts more than two days
  • Severe cold symptoms
  • Wheezing or shortness of breath
  • Ear pain
  • Extreme fussiness

Recovery from common cold

Most colds last 3-10 days. If symptoms of an upper respiratory infection persist or worsen beyond two weeks, you may have a bacterial infection and should see your primary care provider.

Receive Care by Evisit

If you are signed up for Mercy Health MyChart, you are eligible to receive care through Evisit, which gives you quick, convenient access to primary care providers who can diagnose non-urgent medical conditions without the need for an office visit. Evisits requested with the first available doctors, between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. should expect a response within one hour of submission.

Learn More

Find a primary care doctor nearby

Mercy Health locations that can treat you