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Common Cold - Causes, Symptoms, Risk Factors, and Prevention

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The common cold is a condition that infects the nose and throat and presents with the signs of a blocked or runny nose, sneezing, and a scratchy, sore throat.

Written by

Dr. Geethika. B

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Kaushal Bhavsar

Published At September 6, 2022
Reviewed AtSeptember 6, 2022

What Is Common Cold?

The common cold is an infection of viral origin that involves the nose and throat of the upper respiratory tract. Although the most common cause of the common cold is rhinoviruses, it has been discovered that the common cold can be associated with more than two hundred respiratory viruses. These viruses usually survive on the surfaces for hours and sometimes it can last days and spread easily from one person to another.

How Long Does the Common Cold Last?

The common cold usually lasts for about ten days for most people. However, the symptoms might last longer in people who smoke. In general, medical attention is not required for a common cold, but if the symptoms do not show improvement or if they get worse, medical consultation may be required.

What Are the Symptoms of a Common Cold?

Once a person is exposed to the cold-causing virus, the symptoms usually appear in about one to three days. Signs and symptoms of cold often vary from person to person, which includes:

  • Sneezing.

  • Sore throat.

  • Cough.

  • Runny or stuffy nose.

  • Congestion.

  • Low-grade fever.

  • A general feeling of malaise.

  • Slight body aches or a mild headache.

When Should a Doctor Be Consulted?

In the case of an adult patient, medical attention is not required in general. However, if the patient has the following symptoms, they are recommended to seek medical care:

  • Symptoms that do not improve even after the normal duration of time.

  • Fever that lasts for more than three days greater than 101.3 degrees Fahrenheit.

  • Fever that returns even after the symptoms resolve.

  • Difficulty in breathing or shortness of breath.

  • Wheezing.

  • Severe pain involving the throat, head, or sinus.

Children usually do not have to consult the doctor unless they present with the following symptoms:

  • Fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or more in newborns up to 12 weeks.

  • A fever that raises or lasts for more than two days in a child of any age.

  • If the child presents with severe symptoms such as headache, throat pain, or cough.

  • Difficulty in breathing or wheezing.

  • Pain in the ear.

  • If the child is extremely fussy.

  • If the child shows unusual drowsiness.

  • Lack of appetite.

What Are the Causes of a Common Cold?

The most common cause of the common cold is rhinoviruses. More than two hundred respiratory viruses are associated with the common cold. These viruses tend to survive on contaminated surfaces for hours and sometimes days. These viruses also spread easily from one person to another, usually through droplets in the air or when the infected person coughs, talks, or sneezes. They enter the body through the mucosal surfaces of the mouth, nose, or eyes, either through touching the contaminated surfaces or by hand to hand contact.

What Are the Risk Factors That Increase the Chances of Getting a Common Cold?

The following factors can increase the chances of getting a common cold -

  • Age: Infants and children are at a greater risk of getting a cold, especially if they visit the hospitals frequently or are hospitalized.

  • Weakened Immune System: Patients with a weakened immune system or those with a chronic illness have a higher chance of developing a cold.

  • Changing Seasons: Adults and children are both more prone to developing a cold during the winter and rainy seasons.

  • Smoking: Smokers have reduced immunity, and smoking further irritates the nasal mucosa. Hence they are more likely to catch a cold and to have more severe colds.

  • Exposure: More exposure to people and crowded places such as schools and airports increases the chances of catching a cold.

What Are the Complications of the Common Cold?

The following conditions can occur if the cold gets worse -

  • Acute Ear Infection or Otitis Media: This condition occurs when respiratory viruses enter the space behind the eardrum. The typical signs and symptoms include pain in the ear or the return of fever even after the cold has resolved.

  • Asthma: A cold can trigger wheezing, and if the patient has asthma, a cold can make it worse.

  • Acute Sinusitis: In patients who have a common cold that does not resolve, the sinuses can get infected and can lead to swelling and pain (due to inflammation) of the sinuses.

  • Other Infections: A common cold can lead to other associated infections, including a sore throat and pneumonia.

How Is Common Cold Treated?

Medications that are used to alleviate the symptoms of cold include nasal decongestants to ease the stuffiness, antihistamines to prevent sneezing and help with the runny nose, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), Naproxen (Aleve), and Aspirin can help ease body aches, inflammation, and fever symptoms. Antibiotics do not help to recover from a cold caused by respiratory viruses as they do not fight the viruses and possibly cause bacterial resistance. In addition to the medication, patients are advised to drink plenty of fluids and get adequate rest.

What Are the Steps to Prevent the Common Cold?

There is no vaccine for the common cold, but certain precautions can be taken to prevent or reduce the spread of viruses that cause cold -

  • Washing Hands: It is recommended to wash hands thoroughly. The best practice is to wash hands with soap and water for a minimum of 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol can be used. Children must be taught appropriate hand-washing techniques. Unwashed hands must not be used to touch the eyes, nose, or mouth.

  • Disinfect Surfaces: Clean and disinfect surfaces that are touched frequently, like the doorknobs, light switches, electronics, and kitchen and bathroom countertops every day. This is especially important when a family member has a cold.

  • Cover While Coughing: It is advised that the patients cover while coughing and sneeze into the elbows or use tissues. The used tissues must be disposed of right away, and hands must be washed thoroughly.

  • Do Not Share Daily Use Items: Patients should not share drinking glasses or eating utensils with uninfected family members. They must use their own glass or disposable cups when they are sick. Labeling the cup or glass with the name of the person using it will help in isolating the items.


The symptoms of the common cold cause discomfort in the affected individual, but they usually subside within seven to 10 days. However, it is essential to consult a specialist if the symptoms persist longer. In addition, following preventive measures against the common cold is crucial to avoid such infections.

Dr. Kaushal Bhavsar
Dr. Kaushal Bhavsar

Pulmonology (Asthma Doctors)


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