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Common Cold

What is the common cold?

The common cold is a viral infection that affects the upper respiratory tract, primarily the nose and throat. It is one of the most frequent illnesses people experience, with millions of cases occurring each year.

The common cold is typically not severe and symptoms, while unpleasant, usually improve on their own without medical treatment. 

Most people recover within seven to ten days. However, symptoms may last longer for children, older adults and individuals with weakened immune systems. 

What are symptoms of a cold?

A common cold can cause different symptoms, and they can be more or less severe for each person. The most common cold symptoms include:

  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Sneezing
  • Mild body aches or a mild headache
  • Low-grade fever
  • General feeling of being unwell (malaise)

Cold symptoms typically come on slowly and can linger for a week or more. They're usually uncomfortable but not serious. However, you should see a doctor if they get worse or don't go away.

Causes of common colds

Viruses cause the common cold, with rhinoviruses being the most common. Other viruses that can cause colds include coronaviruses, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and adenoviruses. These viruses also infect the upper respiratory tract, causing typical cold symptoms.

Colds are highly contagious and can spread easily from person to person. Viruses primarily transmit through these ways:

  • Airborne droplets: When someone who is sick coughs, sneezes or talks, they release small drops into the air with the virus. Others nearby can breathe in these drops and get sick too.
  • Direct contact: Touching objects with the virus on them, like doorknobs or phones, and then touching your face can spread it. 

Who is at higher risk for colds?

Several factors can increase your risk of catching the common cold. These include:

  • Age: Infants and young children under six years old are at the greatest risk for colds. Their immune systems are still developing, and they often have close contact with other children in daycare or school settings.
  • Weakened immune system: People with weak immune systems, from chronic health conditions or poor nutrition, are more likely to get infections like colds.
  • Time of year: Colds are more common during the fall and winter months. People spending more time indoors and close to others helps viruses spread easily.
  • Smoking: Smokers and those exposed to secondhand smoke have a higher risk of catching colds. Smoking damages the respiratory tract and weakens the immune system, making it easier for viruses to take hold.
  • Exposure to infected individuals: Close contact with someone who has a cold increases your risk of catching it. This includes living in the same household, working in close quarters or being in crowded places.

Practicing good hygiene and avoiding exposure to known sources of infection can help protect you and make it less likely you will get sick. This is especially important for individuals with conditions like cancer, high blood pressure and heart disease.

How to prevent colds

Here are some effective strategies to prevent getting colds:

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water. Make sure to wash for at least 20 seconds. Hand washing is especially important after being in public places, touching surfaces or being near someone who is sick. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Try to avoid close contact with people who have colds. This includes keeping a safe distance and avoiding physical contact such as handshakes and hugs.
  • Stay home if you are sick to avoid spreading the virus to others.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces like doorknobs, light switches, keyboards and phones to prevent the spread of viruses through touch.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands, as this is a common way for viruses to enter your body.
  • When you cough or sneeze, use a tissue or the inside of your elbow to cover your mouth and nose. Throw away tissues immediately and wash your hands to prevent spreading the virus to others.

Conditions often confused with a cold

Since several illnesses have similar signs and symptoms with the common cold, it can be easy to confuse them. Here's how to know if you may have a cold or another conditions:

Flu (influenza)

  • Similarities: Fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches
  • Differences: Flu symptoms are usually more severe and can include high fever, chills and extreme fatigue. The flu often comes on suddenly and can lead to more serious health problems like pneumonia.


  • Similarities: Runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, coughing
  • Differences: Allergies often cause itchy eyes, nose, or throat, and symptoms persist longer. Allergies do not typically cause a fever. They are triggered by allergens such as pollen, dust or pet dander.

Sinus infection (sinusitis)

  • Similarities: Runny or stuffy nose, headache, cough
  • Differences: Sinus infections may cause facial pain or pressure, thick yellow or green mucus, and can last longer than a cold. Sinusitis may also cause bad breath and a reduced sense of smell.


  • Similarities: Fever, cough, sore throat, fatigue
  • Differences: COVID-19 can cause unique symptoms such as loss of taste or smell, shortness of breath and has the potential for more serious complications like severe respiratory issues. Testing is necessary to confirm COVID-19, as symptoms can overlap with both colds and flu.

Understanding these differences can help you determine whether you are dealing with a common cold or another condition that may require different treatment or medical attention. If you're unsure, it's always best to consult a health care provider.

How do you treat a cold?

Treating a cold means relieving symptoms and helping your body's immune system as it fights off the virus. Here are some effective ways to treat a cold:

  • Rest and hydration: Get plenty of rest. Sleep helps your body heal and recover. Drink lots of fluids like water, herbal teas and clear broths to stay hydrated. Proper hydration helps thin mucus and keep your throat moist.
  • Use over-the-counter (OTC) medications to relieve symptoms: You can use over-the-counter medications, also known as cold medicines, to alleviate symptoms. Pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can reduce fever and ease aches. Decongestants can help with nasal congestion and cough syrups or lozenges can soothe a sore throat and suppress coughs. 
  • Take medication as directed: Be sure to follow the dosage instructions and be aware of any side effect each medicine may cause. Also, people who have high blood pressure need to take extra precautions when choosing cold medicine to avoid potential complications.
  • Use a humidifier or saline nasal spray: A humidifier adds moisture to the air, which can help ease congestion and soothe irritated nasal passages. Saline nasal sprays can also help by moisturizing the nasal passages and loosening mucus.
  • Drink warm fluids like tea or soup: Drinking warm fluids, such as herbal tea, broth, or soup, can provide comfort and help soothe a sore throat. The steam from hot liquids can also help ease congestion.

Remember, antibiotics treat bacterial infections and are not effective against viral infections like the common cold. If your symptoms persist or worsen, or if you have any concerns, consult a health care provider.

When to see a doctor for a cold

While the common cold is usually mild, there are times when you should seek medical attention. Here are some signs that it's time to see a doctor:

  • Symptoms that worsen or don’t improve after 7 to 10 days.
  • A high fever (over 102°F or 39°C) or a fever that lasts more than a few days.
  • Severe symptoms like difficulty breathing, chest pain, persistent headaches or confusion.
  • Symptoms that suggest a secondary infection, such as an ear infection or sinusitis, including severe ear pain, facial pain or pressure, thick yellow or green nasal discharge, or a significant change in symptoms after initial improvement.

If you're ever in doubt about your symptoms, it's always best to consult with a health care provider.

Key points

It's important to remember that while the common cold can be uncomfortable, most cases are mild and manageable at home with rest and self-care measures. However, if you experience severe or persistent symptoms, it's essential to seek medical advice to rule out more serious conditions and receive appropriate treatment.

Comprehensive care and support

At Banner Health, our team of health care professionals is dedicated to providing compassionate care and personalized treatment to help you feel better and recover from cold and flu symptoms. Whether you need to schedule an appointment with a primary care provider or require immediate care at one of our urgent care locations, we're here to meet your health care needs.

We understand that convenience is important when seeking health care services. That's why we offer online scheduling for appointments with primary care providers or you can save your spot at a nearby Banner Urgent Care.