Common Cold

Head Cold, Coryza, Nasopharyngitis, Upper respiratory Infection

What is Common cold?

The common cold is an acute and self-limited illness caused by any of more than 200 viruses. The illness is characterized by a runny nose (rhinorrhea), nasal congestion, sneezing, sore throat, with or without a cough. Symptoms of this illness are confined to the upper respiratory tract and do not involve the lungs. Colds are transmitted from person to person, rather than by becoming chilled or poor eating and sleeping habits. After exposure to a cold-causing virus, symptoms usually appear within 48 to 72 hours.

Normal healthy adults may experience two to four colds per year. Smokers may experience an increased incidence of colds as well as increased severity of symptoms. The occurrence of colds is highest in the fall and winter. Colds are invariably passed from family member to family member, with increased numbers of colds in children (six to eight per year), and even more among children attending day care or school. Colds generally last from five to seven days, with about 25% having symptoms that continue for up to two weeks. Colds are the most frequent cause of absenteeism from work and school.

How is it diagnosed?

Common Cold signs and symptoms

  • Runny or stuffy nose. Nasal discharge is watery at first, then becomes thick and yellow.
  • Sore throat.
  • Hoarseness.
  • Cough that produces little or no sputum.
  • Low fever.
  • Fatigue.
  • Watering eyes.
  • Appetite loss.

History might include contact with another person known to have a cold. Symptoms include runny nose with clear or yellowish discharge and nasal congestion or obstruction, sneezing, perhaps a dry (non-productive) cough, and mild fever. A general lack of energy (malaise) may be reported.

Physical exam may reveal reddening of the throat or nose with swelling of these tissues. Lymph nodes can be enlarged and tender in the neck. Fever, if present, is usually below 101° F.

Tests: There are no laboratory tests or x-rays necessary for diagnosis. An elevated white blood cell count neither confirms nor rules out the diagnosis.

How is Common cold treated?

The treatment of the common cold is aimed at relieving symptoms, because a cure is not available. The illness itself will run its course in about a week, with or without symptomatic treatment.

There is no reason to treat an uncomplicated common cold with antibiotics. A short period of bedrest during the initial stages of the cold may be helpful if symptoms are severe. Over-the-counter analgesics provide relief of pain, and oral decongestants or sprays can relieve the discomfort of nasal congestion.

Individuals with a history of asthma, bronchitis, or sinusitis may be advised to begin preventive treatment with bronchodilators and/or decongestants in order to prevent complications.


  • No medicine, including antibiotics, can cure the common cold. To relieve symptoms, you may use non-prescription drugs, such as acetaminophen, decongestants, nose drops or sprays, cough remedies and throat lozenges.
  • Vitamin C in large doses (up to 1000 mg a day) may help shorten the duration.
Information Brand Generic Label Rating
Minocin 100 mg Minocin Minocycline Off-Label Augmentin Amoxicillin/Clavulanate Off-Label
Order Ampicillin Principen Ampicillin Off-Label

Cleocin (Clindamycin), Atrovent (Ipratropium bromide)

What might complicate it?

The viral infection may spread to the larynx, causing hoarseness, pain on swallowing, and a painful cough. Middle ear infection (otitis media) occurs in five percent of children with colds, but is much less common in adults. Approximately five percent of individuals will develop a bacterial sinus infection. Most common colds run their course without complication.

Individuals with asthma or chronic lung disease are at greater risk of complications. Up to 50% of these individuals experience wheezing with their colds. They may develop an acute flare-up of asthma or bronchitis twenty percent of the time.

Progression of a cold into pneumonia is uncommon, usually occurring in a person with a pre-existing lung disorder.

Predicted outcome

The prognosis for the common cold is excellent. A complete recovery to pre-illness health can be expected.


Bed rest is not necessary, but avoid vigorous activity. Rest often.


Regular diet. Drink extra fluids, including water, fruit juice, tea and carbonated drinks.


If symptoms are persistent, other possibilities are influenza, bacterial infection of the throat or sinuses, asthma, bronchitis, sinusitis, hay fever (allergic rhinitis), exposure to irritating chemicals or dust, or otitis media.

Appropriate specialists

Internist, pediatrician, pulmonologist, and otolaryngologist.

Notify your physician if

The following occur during the illness:

  • Increased throat pain, or white or yellow spots on the tonsils or other parts of the throat.
  • Coughing episodes that last longer than intervals between coughing; cough that produces thick, yellowgreen or gray sputum; cough that lasts longer than 10 days; or difficult or labored breathing between coughing bouts.
  • You cannot distinguish a common cold from the flu.
  • Fever that lasts several days or fever over 101° F (38.3° C).
  • Shaking chills, chest pain or shortness of breath.
  • Earache or headache.
  • Skin rash; dusky blue or gray lips, skin or nail beds.
  • Pain in the teeth or over the sinuses.
  • Unusual lethargy or irritability.
  • Delirium.
  • Enlarged, tender glands in the neck.
  • Inability to bottle-feed or breast-feed in an infant.

Last updated 18 December 2015


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