What is a cold?

The common cold is, you guessed it, one of the most common illnesses around. Also known as a “head cold”, or sometimes just “the sniffles”, the common cold is a type of upper respiratory infection. Caused by a family of over 250 viruses that can affect the nose, throat, and sinuses, the common cold is a simple fact of life that most of us will have to deal with at one time or another.

Usually, the common cold results in only mild symptoms that usually last between five days and two weeks. However, certain people may find they have symptoms for up to three weeks.

It’s easy to confuse common colds and flu. In general, colds are far less severe than the flu, and are also caused by a different class of virus.

Symptoms of colds

Cold symptoms can range from very mild to moderate. Often, they are simply annoying, but can also be uncomfortable, particularly if they continue for many days.Typical symptoms of the common cold may include:

  • Coughing
  • Sore throat
  • Low-grade fever
  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose (increased mucus production) or postnasal drip
  • HeadacheSneezing
  • Watery eyes, redness or itchy eyes
  • Ear pain or clogged feeling
  • Some individuals may have slightly swollen lymph nodes near the neck and ears
  • Mild muscle aches

Treatment of colds

Unfortunately, there is no vaccine against the common cold. This is because colds are not caused by a single virus, but over 250 different types. It’s simply too difficult to produce a vaccine that protects you against all of them.

Colds very rarely lead to serious complications. While you may be uncomfortable for a few days, your health will likely not be in danger.

In general, cold treatment focuses on managing the symptoms of the virus (as opposed to trying to treat the underlying virus itself). There are a number of medicines available that can help you manage your symptoms, nearly all of which are available over-the-counter.

Treatments include:

  • Acetaminophen, and other pain relief drugs, for mild fever and body aches. Children and young people should not take certain pain relief medicines, and you should always check the dosage charts to make sure you are taking the right amount
  • Decongestants. These medicines can help unblock your nose and make breathing easier. It is important not to use these medicines for more than a couple of days as they can actually begin to make symptoms worse. People with certain heart conditions or high blood pressure might need to avoid decongestants.
  • Salt water (saline) nasal sprays. These handy nasal sprays can help open your airways and can be used as often as needed.
  • Cough mixtures. These medicines may help suppress the need to cough and may reduce the feeling of tickling in your throat. These do not work in children and should not be used.

Home remedies for colds

When colds set in, many people don’t go to the pharmacy but instead head to their kitchen cupboards. Here are some handy remedies that help some people find relief.

  • Salt water gargles. These can help with sore throats and are prepared with warm water and regular salt.
  • Keeping hydrated. One of the important things you can do when you have a cold is drink a lot of fluids to keep your body hydrated.
  • Chicken (or other broth based) soup. Many people find soup comforting during a cold. Others find the steam helps open blocked nasal passages.
  • Tea. Some people recommend drinking hot tea for colds. As with chicken soup, the hot steam can help open airways.
  • Honey. Honey can soothe the throat and has shown in some studies to suppress cough better than cough syrups!
  • Hot baths. The easiest way to inhale a lot of steam for clearer sinuses is to run a hot bath. You could also try a humidifier in your bedroom to help avoid nasal passage dryness.
  • Menthol ointment (vapor rub or chest rub). A common over the counter ointment of menthol, camphor, and eucalyptus might help relieve symptoms of congestion when rubbed on the chest and throat, or may help relieve joint or muscle aches. Do not use it in or around your nose, mouth, or eyes, because some of the ingredients can be toxic if absorbed! Some studies have shown that it does not have much effect, but can cause some skin irritation.

FAQs

How can I tell if I have COVID-19?

According to the CDC: People with COVID-19 have had a wide range of symptoms reported – ranging from mild symptoms to severe illness. Symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure to the virus. People with these symptoms may have COVID-19:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Many of these symptoms overlap with the common cold. If you have ANY of the symptoms on the list, you should isolate yourself from other people, stay home from school, work, or social events, and avoid housemates as much as possible for at least 10 days. Talk to your doctor about how long you and other members of your household should isolate, and whether you should be tested.

How can I tell the difference between a cold and the flu?

Many people confuse the common cold with the flu. However, the two illnesses are caused by different viruses. In the case of colds, over 250 viruses can be to blame. With the flu, the influenza virus is the specific culprit. Both cold and flu may cause cough and varying degrees of chest congestion. A cold usually presents with milder, gradual onset symptoms of congestion, sore throat, and only mild headaches and body aches. A cold does not usually cause a fever. Flu, on the other hand, gives people more serious body aches, headache, weakness, and fever, and it often comes on quickly, over a matter of hours from feeling fine to feeling terrible!

How does the common cold spread?

The common cold is highly contagious. That means it’s easily spread between people. In order to catch a cold, you need to come into contact with the virus. This can happen either by direct contact with infected droplets on contaminated surfaces or by inhaling the virus after someone sneezes or coughs. Most frequently, transmission happens when someone who has a cold blows their nose or touches their nose and then touches someone or something else. A healthy individual who then makes direct contact with droplets can become infected, usually by touching their eyes, nose or mouth.

When are people who have colds contagious?

As a rule of thumb, those with the common cold can be contagious anywhere from one to two days before their symptoms begin up until time that their symptoms have disappeared. In other words, patients can be contagious right throughout the time they feel ill, and often before, as well. That said, a patient will generally be more contagious towards the start of their illness, before their immune system has had time to fight the virus. In general, the common cold is typically most contagious during the initial two to three days of illness. Given this, it is wise for a person who has just come down with a cold to limit their contact with others, so as not to infect them. Since many symptoms overlap with COVID-19, it is sometimes impossible to tell if a person has COVID-19 or “just a cold”. You may need to isolate for 10 days or more after your symptoms start to avoid the risk of spreading COVID-19.

What are some of the risk factors for getting a cold?

Some people, it seems, get colds all the time. The common cold also becomes more prevalent at certain times of the year. In general, there are a few risk factors that may increase the chances of coming down with a common cold. These include:

  • Time of the year. People generally come down with the common cold during the fall, winter, or during the rainy season, in warmer climates. This is not because the virus “emerges” in cooler weather, but rather because people tend to stay indoors when the weather outside is cold and rainy, making the virus more easily spread, as people are in close contact with each other for extended periods.
  • Age. Babies and young children are more likely to develop the common cold than adults. This is because their immune systems are not fully developed.
  • Underlying medical conditions or weakened immune systems. Those whose immune systems are weakened are more likely to develop the common cold. Fatigue or emotional distress may also increase someone’s chances of catching a cold, as these can temporarily affect the immune system.

Should I take zinc when I have a cold?

Many people have read the advice to take zinc, or a combination of zinc and vitamin C when they catch a cold. However, the evidence for whether zinc really does help shorten the duration of colds are mixed and generally not very conclusive. Some studies, for example, show that zinc nasal sprays can help reduce how long your cold lasts and make your symptoms less severe. The theory behind this is that zinc sprays may coat the cold virus and prevent it from attaching to cells in your nose, where they enter your body. However, other studies show that zinc doesn’t meaningfully lessen symptoms or the duration of a cold, but it does have a real risk of side effects, like painful burning in the nose! Because it's not clear if it works, and the risk of a loss of smell, many experts recommend that you avoid treatments like zinc nasal sprays completely.

Should I take vitamin C when I have a cold?

Many people recommend taking vitamin C to reduce the number of days you feel ill when you have a cold. In general, having a diet high in vitamin C is good, and it is always wise to consume a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables which are rich in this vitamin. However, recent studies of whether taking vitamin C once you have a cold can help shorten the time you are ill are generally inconclusive. However, some studies did suggest that symptoms could be slightly shortened for people taking the vitamin.

Which viruses cause the common cold?

Over 250 viruses can cause the common cold. One of the most common viruses is the rhinovirus. Other viruses that commonly cause colds include: coronavirus, adenovirus, respiratory syncytial virus, and parainfluenza virus. Because so many different viruses can cause the common cold, and because new cold viruses constantly develop, the body never builds up immunity or resistance against all of them. That’s why colds can happen multiple times a year, and why children are particularly susceptible.

Are antibiotics the right treatment for a common cold?

No. Antibiotics should never be taken to treat the common cold. They will not help a cold get better any faster, and they can make you sick! Antibiotics are effective only against illnesses caused by bacteria. Colds are caused by viruses, hence antibiotics will have no effect on them. It’s never a good idea to take antibiotics when you don’t really need to. Antibiotics can sometimes cause allergic reactions, or disturb the balance of your gut flora, leading to upset stomachs and diarrhea. And using antibiotics when they are not necessary has led to the growth of several strains of common bacteria that have become resistant to certain antibiotics. This is called “drug resistance” and is a big problem in medicine today.

When should I visit my doctor?

In general, the common cold is not severe in adults and can be managed without the help of a doctor. Stay rested, get enough fluids and manage symptoms with over-the-counter medications and you should feel much better in just a few days. However, if more severe symptoms develop, such as chills, high fever, bad headaches, neck stiffness, vomiting, abdominal pain, wheezing or difficulty breathing, chest pain, confusion, or you don’t see any improvement in your symptoms after 10 days, you should certainly see a doctor. Any baby age 3 months or younger with a fever needs to see a doctor. If a child older than 3 months has more than mild symptoms, it’s time to talk to the doctor. Babylon members can see a doctor 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

How do I prevent myself from catching a cold?

The most important way to avoid catching cold is to avoid coming into contact with infected people. If you see someone sneezing or coughing, try to keep your distance. Do not shake hands and try to avoid touching objects that they have touched. That said, many times people catch colds without knowing who they caught it from. This happens because the virus can hang around in the air or on surfaces for some time. General measures for preventing the common cold include the following:

  • Wash your hands frequently and well during cold and flu season. This easy process destroys viruses acquired from touching contaminated surfaces. In between washing your hands, you can also use alcohol-based hand sanitizers, containing at least 70% alcohol.
  • Disinfect frequently touched surfaces or personal objects with a product that is effective against flu and cold-causing viruses (and safe for the type of surface).
  • Never share personal belongings such as towels, handkerchiefs, or tissues.

Should I stay at home if I have a cold?

If you have a cough and/or fever, or other symptoms that might be COVID-19, you should stay home for 10 days after the start of symptoms. You should not go around others if you are coughing. Talk to your doctor or your local health department about how long to isolate and whether you should be tested. When you return to work or school, still practice good hand washing, keep 6 feet distance from others, and wear your mask. If you don’t feel well enough it is better to stay home. Rest also helps your immune system to work better, meaning you might recover faster if you take some time off.

Can pregnant women take cold medicines?

Pregnant women should talk to your pharmacist, midwife or doctor about what medicines are safe for you and your developing baby. Avoid taking medicine if you are pregnant or breastfeeding without talking to your health care team. Expecting moms shouldn’t assume that what they have is simply the common cold. If you experience fever and muscle aches, or if symptoms don't lessen within about 10 days, see your doctor to see if it's an illness that requires special treatment.

Is a runny nose a symptom of a cold?

While a runny nose does often happen when you get a cold, a runny nose by itself doesn’t necessarily mean you have a cold. A runny nose could be from allergies or another illness. Multiple symptoms usually occur when you have a cold. Sore throat, fever, muscle aches, headaches will usually accompany runny nose. Consult your doctor if your symptoms continue longer than two weeks or get worse.

Does wearing a mask help prevent getting a cold?

Wearing a mask can help prevent the spread of the cold virus, as wearing a mask reduces the chance of saliva droplets getting into your body. These droplets are spread when someone with the virus sneezes or coughs.

Is a cold serious?

A cold is not considered serious, but it can affect your daily life. The symptoms of a cold can make you miserable but they are not life threatening. Like any virus, getting plenty of rest and fluids can speed up your recovery time.

What is the best way of getting rid of a common cold?

While there is no cure for the common cold, getting plenty of rest and drinking plenty of fluids can help minimize the length of a common cold. Taking over-the-counter pain relievers can help with headaches, fevers, muscle soreness and common aches and pains. Some other treatments to try are nasal sprays and cough syrups or lozenges. These are not recommended for children under six and you should ask your doctor before trying them for yourself. You could also have a bacterial infection and may need antibiotics for this. Some home remedies could help to ease the symptoms of the common cold like honey, humidifiers or vaporizers. Eating soups like chicken noodle can help to loosen up your congestion. Home remedies are not a proven cure. Consult your doctor if you do not improve in seven to 10 days.

The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of a doctor with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never delay seeking or disregard professional medical advice because of something you have read here.