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.
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
- Post-nasal drip
- Mild body aches
- 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.
- 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.