The common cold is an infection of your nose, sinuses, throat and windpipe. Colds spread easily, especially within homes, classrooms and workplaces. More than 200 different viruses can cause colds. There’s no cure for a common cold, but it usually goes away within a week to 10 days. If you don’t feel better in 10 days, see a healthcare provider.
A cold is a contagious upper respiratory infection that affects your nose, throat, sinuses and windpipe (trachea). You may have heard that the common cold is a coronavirus. In fact, more than 200 different types of viruses can cause a cold. The most common cold virus is the rhinovirus.
We call colds “common” because as their name implies, they’re widespread. You’ll probably have more colds in your lifetime than any other illness. Adults catch two to three colds a year, while young children come down with a cold four or more times a year.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
Common cold symptoms typically appear in stages. The common cold stages include early, active and late.
Within one to three days of picking up a cold virus, you may notice a tickle in your throat. About half of all people with colds report a tickly or sore throat as their first symptom. Other common cold symptoms you may experience during this early stage include:
Symptoms typically worsen or peak during this stage. In addition to the symptoms in stage 1, you may experience:
Colds usually begin to wind down during this stage. You may be free and clear at this point. But some symptoms can persist. Some people develop a nagging cough that can last up to two months after a respiratory infection.
If your symptoms get worse and/or your fever returns, make a trip to a healthcare provider. You may have developed another infection or a complication, such as bronchitis, sinusitis or pneumonia.
Symptoms of colds in babies may include:
If your child has any of the following symptoms, call their healthcare provider. These symptoms could mean that your child has something more serious than a cold:
Rhinoviruses cause up to 50% of common colds. There are more than 100 different rhinoviruses. But other types of viruses, such as coronaviruses, can also cause colds. More than 200 different viruses can cause a cold.
Yes. Colds spread easily from person to person. For you to become infected, the virus has to get to one of your mucous membranes — the moist lining of your nostrils, eyes or mouth. That happens when you touch a surface or breathe moist air that contains the cold virus.
For example, when a person who’s sick sneezes or coughs, they launch droplets of fluid containing the cold virus into the air. If you breathe in those droplets, the cold virus takes root in your nose. You can also leave virus particles on surfaces you touch when you’re sick. If someone else touches those surfaces and then touches their nostrils, eyes or mouth, the virus can get in.
You can be contagious for up to two weeks, even spreading a cold a day or two before you have symptoms. But you’re most contagious when your symptoms are at their worst — usually the first three days you feel sick.
The incubation period is the time between when you’re infected and when your symptoms first appear. The common cold incubation period is between 12 hours and three days after exposure to the virus.
The common cold in children and babies occurs more often because they haven’t been exposed to as many viruses as adults. Their immune systems have to learn how to recognize and fight new germs.
Before turning 2 years old, a baby can get as many as eight to 10 colds a year. By the time you become an adult, you’ve had many colds. It’s easier for your immune system to identify and attack similar viruses.
In addition, children are in close contact with other children. Kids typically don’t cover their coughs and sneezes or wash their hands before touching their faces — steps that prevent the virus from spreading.
Cold viruses can live on objects for several hours. Babies often pick up objects that other babies have touched. If a baby touches something that has cold germs on it, then touches their mouth, eyes or nose, the germs can infect them.
A healthcare provider will ask you about your symptoms and perform a physical exam. During the exam, the provider will check for signs, such as:
Typically, a physical exam is enough to determine if you have a cold. You may need tests if the provider suspects you have COVID-19, the flu or another condition. The provider may give you a nasal swab test (cotton swab rubbed inside your nose) to check for these viruses. Chest X-rays can rule out other conditions, such as bronchitis or pneumonia.
There’s no cure for a cold. You have to let it run its course. Most colds go away on their own within seven to 10 days and don’t turn into anything more serious. Common cold treatment includes over-the-counter (OTC) medications to help reduce your symptoms and keep you comfortable until you recover.
Antibiotics are medications that fight infections caused by bacteria. Because viruses cause colds, antibiotics don’t work for colds. Sometimes, children may develop complications from bacteria, such as an ear infection or pneumonia. Healthcare providers may prescribe antibiotics to treat these illnesses.
There are many OTC common cold medication options available to treat your symptoms. But some of these medications aren’t safe for children. Check with a healthcare provider before giving your child OTC medications. Be careful not to combine medicines that treat multiple symptoms. You could get too much of some ingredients, which could cause other health problems, including organ damage.
Medications that may relieve cold symptoms include:
Unless prescribed by their provider, don’t give your baby any over-the-counter cough or cold medicines. To treat common cold in babies:
Since most children can’t blow their nose until about age 4, the following methods may help ease your baby’s stuffy nose:
Babies can continue their normal activities if they seem well enough to do so. If they have a fever or complications, it’s best to keep them at home.
There are several steps you can take to prevent a cold, including:
The best way to prevent your baby from catching a cold is to keep them away from people who have colds. If possible, keep your baby home. A virus that causes a mild illness in an older child or an adult can cause a more serious one in an infant.
Hand washing is the most important way to reduce the spread of colds:
Keep your baby up-to-date on all of the recommended immunizations. They won’t stop colds, but they can help prevent some complications, such as bacterial infections of their ears or lungs.
Pediatricians recommend the flu (influenza) vaccine each year for babies who are at least 6 months old. The shot protects against the flu but not against other respiratory viruses. The COVID-19 immunization is available as well for infants starting at 6 months of age.
Most colds go away on their own within seven to 10 days. Most people recover quickly and the common cold doesn’t lead to anything more serious.
The common cold isn’t fatal. In some people — especially those with weakened immune systems — a cold could lead to other conditions that could cause severe health problems. Those complications include:
Researchers haven’t found that any of those remedies can prevent colds. But zinc may shorten the illness and reduce symptoms. However, it may cause permanent loss of smell, especially when you use it in nasal sprays.
The best common cold self-care remedy is to get plenty of rest. Consider taking time off from work or school for at least the first few days of illness. Not only will you have more time to rest, but you’ll avoid spreading germs to others.
Also, make sure you’re drinking plenty of fluids to keep your nose and throat moist. Avoid alcohol and caffeine because they have a drying effect.
Contact a healthcare provider if you have any of the following symptoms:
Call your baby’s healthcare provider or go to the nearest emergency room if your baby:
Having a cold during pregnancy isn’t usually dangerous. But you do need to be careful with what cold medications you take to treat symptoms. Your healthcare provider can let you know which ones are safe to use during pregnancy.
If you think you may have the flu or you develop a fever, you should contact your provider right away. You may need immediate treatment.
You can catch a cold any time of year, but it’s more likely during colder months. In winter, people stay indoors and are in closer contact with each other.
A recent study in mice suggests cold temperatures may also affect your immune system’s response. Researchers found that when cooler air lowered nose temperature, mouse immune systems had a harder time stopping the rhinovirus from multiplying. The same may be true in humans.
Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that can cause upper respiratory infections. While rhinoviruses cause most types of common cold, coronaviruses do cause some. Most people recover quickly from these common colds.
Coronaviruses may also travel into your lungs and lead to pneumonia and other complications that can be fatal. The novel (new) coronavirus discovered in 2019 causes a specific disease known as COVID-19. Early symptoms that make COVID-19 different from the common cold include:
However, the omicron variant of COVID-19 causes slightly milder symptoms, making it easier to confuse with a cold. Omicron symptoms similar to the common cold include:
It can be hard to tell whether you have a cold or the flu since many of the symptoms are the same. Both are widespread during the colder months and affect your upper respiratory system. But different viruses cause cold and flu. The flu comes from the influenza virus, while many other types of viruses cause colds.
The main difference between cold and flu is that you’re more likely to have a fever and chills with flu. Adults don’t usually get a fever with a common cold, although kids sometimes do.
The flu also causes body aches and more severe symptoms than a cold. Although both the cold and flu can lead to complications, flu complications can be life-threatening.
A chest cold, or short-term (acute) bronchitis, causes irritation and a buildup of mucus in your lungs. Common colds turn into chest colds when the virus travels from your nose and throat to your lungs. Occasionally, bacteria cause chest colds.
You can have a cough with a common cold or a chest cold. But chest colds produce a wet cough, meaning you may feel or cough up phlegm. You may also have:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Although it may cause discomfort, the common cold is usually harmless. You can manage the symptoms of a cold with medications. Speed up your recovery by getting plenty of rest and fluids, and avoid being around others. If you don’t feel better in 10 days, see a healthcare provider.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/07/2023.
Learn more about our editorial process.