Definition | Causes | Risk Factors | Symptoms | Diagnosis | Treatment | Prevention


The common cold is an infection that can irritate your nose and throat.

Sore Throat Due to Inflammation

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The common cold is caused by a virus. There are over 200 different viruses that can cause a cold.

Risk Factors

Factors that may increase your chance of a cold include:

  • Being near someone who has a cold
  • Touching your nose, mouth, or eyes with contaminated fingers
  • Decreased resistance, which can be caused by smoking, second-hand smoke, or stress
  • Allergies or asthma
  • Shorter sleep duration or poor sleep quality


A cold may cause:

  • Sore or scratchy throat
  • Stuffy nose
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Itchy, stuffed sensation in the ears
  • Watery eyes
  • Cough
  • Headache
  • Aches and pains
  • Low energy
  • Fever


The diagnosis is most often based on your symptoms. Generally, tests are not needed to make a diagnosis unless another condition is suspected, such as pneumonia.


A cold usually lasts 10 days or longer. There are no cures for a cold, but treatments can ease symptoms. These include:

To make you more comfortable:

  • Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids. Warm beverages like tea and chicken soup are soothing. They may also help decrease congestion.
  • Use a humidifier. A cool-mist humidifier will keep your nasal passages moist. Humidifiers may also loosen congestion. Be sure to clean the humidifier every day.
  • Try nasal flushing with a neti-pot or saline spray. This can help loosen mucus.
  • Gargle with warm salt water. It can help soothe a sore throat.

To relieve aches, pains, and fever consider non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Prescription antiviral medication is usually not necessary.

Note: Aspirin is not recommended for children with a current or recent viral infection. Check with your doctor before giving your child aspirin.

Cough and cold remedies include:

  • Decongestants
  • Expectorants
  • Antihistamines
  • Antitussives
  • Throat lozenges
  • Mentholated vapor rubs

Note: Cough and cold medications should not be used in children under 2 years old, and they are not recommended in children under 4 years old. The US Food and Drug Administration has not completed its review regarding the safety of over-the-counter cough and cold medications in children ages 2-11 years. Rare, but serious side effects have been reported.

Decongestant pills or nasal sprays can shrink nasal passages. They also decrease mucus production. Nasal sprays should only be used for 2-3 days. Longer use can lead to increased congestion when you stop using the product.

Many people use alternative treatments to relieve their cold symptoms. Some of the more popular choices include:

  • Vitamin C —Taking extra vitamin C at the start of a cold has not been shown to be of any benefit. Some believe that taking vitamin C throughout the cold season may help reduce symptoms or shorten how long the cold lasts.
  • Zinc lozenges—Taking zinc lozenges at the start of a cold may help shorten the length of the cold.
  • Echinacea —Echinacea might help people to recover faster from a cold. But, there is little evidence that it can prevent colds if taken in advance.
  • Honey —While honey has not been shown to affect the severity or length of a common cold, it may improve nighttime cough and sleep disruption in children. Do not give honey to infants younger than 12 months because of the risk of infant botulism.

Note: Some supplements and herbal treatments may not be pure. Many can also interact with prescription medications and over-the-counter products. Talk to your doctor before using any of these products.


The most important way to keep from getting or spreading a cold is by washing your hands. Wash your hands well and often. Other ways to keep from getting a cold:

  • Keep your hands away from your nose, mouth, and eyes.
  • Stay away from people who have a cold.
  • If you smoke, talk to your doctor about ways to quit or cut down on smoking.
  • Ask your doctor if taking certain supplements may be right for you.