According to the National Institutes of Health, Americans suffer more than 1 billion colds a year. Young children get more colds than adults because of their close contact with other children and because they are being exposed to viruses for the first time. Germs also spread more in colder months because people stay indoors and are in closer quarters with each other.

What is a cold?

A cold is a contagious upper respiratory infection that is caused by a virus. More than 200 different viruses can cause colds.

What are the symptoms of a cold?

  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • Nasal congestion
  • Fever may be present, especially in children

These symptoms usually occur two to three days after infection and will usually end in seven to 10 days.

How are colds spread?

Colds are spread from one person to another through direct contact or by inhaling droplets of fluid that contain a cold virus. Cold viruses must reach the mucous membrane, the moist lining of the nostrils, eyes, or mouth, in order for a person to become infected.

Someone who has a cold probably has particles of a cold virus on them. Many surfaces may also have particles of a cold virus on them. If you touch an infected person or surface and then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth, you are more likely to catch a cold.

How are colds treated?

There is no cure for a cold, but getting enough rest is the best way to make a quick recovery. Talk with your doctor before taking any medication or giving medication to your child.

Over-the-counter cold medications may relieve the symptoms of a cold. However, the benefits of these medications are minimal. Some of these medications include the following:

  • Acetaminophen relieves the aches and pains of a cold without upsetting the stomach. Aspirin should not be given to children under the age of 18 because of its link to Reye's Syndrome, a disorder that mostly affects children 4 to 12 years old and causes brain damage and death.
  • Decongestants may relieve nasal congestion, but the effects are minimal and these are generally not recommended for children because they may have significant adverse effects.
  • Antihistamines are occasionally used to stop a runny nose and sneezing.
  • Cough suppressants may diminish a cough in adults, but these medications have not been found to be beneficial for children, and may have significant adverse effects in children.
  • Expectorants loosen mucous so that it can be easily expelled.

Drinking plenty of fluids will keep the nose and throat moist and will loosen mucous. Stay away from alcohol and caffeine because they have a drying effect.

Antibiotics should not be used to treat a cold. Antibiotics are effective against bacteria only. They will not work on colds (which are caused by viruses), may have adverse effects, and may cause future infections to be worse and last longer.

Many people take supplements and herbal remedies, such as zinc, Vitamin C, and echinacea to treat and prevent colds. These remedies have been studied and their effectiveness has not been verified. They also may have unwelcome adverse effects such as diarrhea. Tell your doctor if you are taking supplements and herbal remedies.

How can you keep from getting a cold?

  • Wash your hands--especially before eating and preparing food, after using the bathroom, after wiping your nose, and after coming in contact with someone who has a cold.
  • Avoid touching your eyes and nose to prevent the spread of viruses from your hands.
  • Avoid contact with those who have a cold.
  • Clean frequently used surfaces (such as doorknobs) with a virus-killing disinfectant.
  • Use hand sanitizers when water is not available.
  • Get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, and exercise. This will strengthen your immune system and enable you to fight off infections easier.

When does a cold require a doctor's care?

Contact your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • High fever
  • Chest pain
  • Greenish mucous
  • Ear pain
  • An asthma flare-up
  • Symptoms lasting longer than 10 days or getting worse

You may also have a bacterial infection, which can be diagnosed and treated by your doctor. Children with colds should be watched closely, and a doctor should be contacted if children have a high fever, are wheezing, are not eating, are sleepier than usual, cry a lot, or have ear or stomach pain.


© Copyright 1995-2014 The Cleveland Clinic Foundation. All rights reserved.

This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 10/7/2014...#12342