The common cold is probably the only health ailment that affects all human beings at some time in their life and more than once. It is the most frequent infectious disease seen in humans. It accounts for the most number of absentees from school and work. By itself, cold is not a dangerous ailment, but its complications can be serious.

It is said that if you take remedies for the common cold, you will be cured within one week, and if you do not, you will be cured within seven days. This only goes to affirm that this is a self-limiting ailment, and the treatment is only symptomatic (relief from symptoms) – the reason being that the causative microorganism is a virus and there is no cure for a viral infection.

Statistics for the common cold in the United States

  • 62 million cases every year
  • Children catch it about 6 to 10 times a year
  • Adults catch it about 2 to 4 times a year
  • Seniors above 60 years suffer from it about once a year

Cause of common cold

There are more than 200 viruses that can cause the common cold. The most common virus is called the rhinovirus, a type of picornavirus with 99 known serotypes. It is responsible for about 30% to 80% of cases.

Other viruses that can claim credit for causing cold include:

  • human coronavirus (15%)
  • influenza viruses (10%–15%)
  • adenoviruses (5%)
  • human parainfluenza viruses

Frequently, more than one virus is present.

How do you get cold? Cause of transmission

You can catch a cold in three ways of transmission:

  1. by inhaling the airborne viruses released by the sneezing or coughing of the infected person
  2. by direct contact with the infected person such as by shaking hands or kissing
  3. by touching common objects that have been contaminated by the infected patient.

For example:

  • Cold can spread by direct contact with a person whose hands may have the secretions from his infected nose (such as with a handshake).
  • Since viruses can live on inanimate objects, any contact with objects of the infected person can help in the transmission of the virus. These objects may be a handkerchief, a pen or a glass, or such things that people often touch. The viruses can survive for prolonged periods on these inanimate objects. The rhinovirus can survive for up to 18 days and can infect people.
  • When a person with cold sneezes, he releases its viruses into the air and the person close to him may breathe in these viruses and get infected.

However, it is not necessary that every person exposed, as mentioned above, will catch a cold. It will depend on the virulence (strength) of the virus, and resistance (immunity) of the person exposed.

Risk factors

  • Age: Infants, toddlers, and young children are at a greater risk of developing the common cold because their immune system is still not fully developed and they have yet to acquire immunity to many viruses. Secondly, children mix around with other children and can catch the infection easily from other infected children. Infants tend to be shown affection by neighbors, friends, and relatives, who carry them and shower kisses. As you age you develop immunity to many viruses and the frequency of catching infections reduces.
  • Season of cold: Common cold is often seen more during the winter and rainy seasons. The reason attributed to this is that people stay indoors more during these seasons and come in close proximity to each other, thus facilitating the spread of the virus.
  • Weakened immunity: A weakened immune system due to any cause increases your risk of catching a cold and delaying recovery. Causes of a weakened immune system are many and include stress, malnutrition, alcohol, smoking, lack of sleep, obesity, and certain treatments.

How long does the common cold last? Duration

Most common colds last for about a week, maybe a day or two more.  More stubborn cases may last for two weeks or three.

The duration of the viral infection depends on the virulence of the virus, your immune system, any superadded bacterial infection, and your lifestyle habits such as smoking, which delay the illness from being resolved.

During which period is the common cold contagious?

The common cold is contagious as long as the virus is present in the nasal discharge of the person.

It is during the second day that the symptoms start appearing and it is during the second to the fourth day that the infected person is most contagious. This is because the viruses are present in more concentration during this period.

However, variations do happen. The person may have symptoms on the fifth day or he may be totally asymptomatic, even though he is infected.


The symptoms of the common cold are not serious but can be irritating. The incubation period is one to three days. This means the symptoms appear one to three days after exposure to the causative virus. In some cases, symptoms can appear even as early as 16 hours after exposure.

They are a result of the body’s immune response to the virus rather than due to the damage caused by the virus itself.

Symptoms include

  • Running or a blocked nose
  • Irritation in the throat in about 40% of the cases
  • Headache
  • Cough in about 50% of the cases
  • Sneezing
  • Watery eyes
  • Low-grade fever and body ache
  • Some people may experience mild fatigue.

The nasal discharge is usually watery, to begin with. It may turn yellowish or greenish later.  This is a sign of superadded bacterial infection.

Symptoms of the common cold in babies, toddlers, and children

The first warning sign of a cold in the baby is a running nose. The nasal discharge is watery but can turn thick and yellow if a bacterial infection sets in.

Other symptoms may include:

  • Stuffy nose
  • Low-grade fever
  • Sneezing
  • Cough
  • Red eyes
  • Sore throat
  • Loss of appetite
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty in feeding due to nasal congestion

Complications of the common cold

Complications of the common cold are seen when the infection spreads from the nasal area to other areas.

The viral infection is often superimposed by the bacterial infection due to the fall of resistance of the patient and this adds to the severity of the infection. You must see your doctor if these complications arise.

  • Otitis media is the acute infection of the middle ear caused typically by the spread of the infection from the nasal area to the middle ear through the Eustachian tube. It is a common cold complication seen more often in children. Symptoms of otitis media include ear pain and fever.
  • Pharyngitis (sore throat) is caused by the superadded streptococcal infection in the throat.
  • Laryngitis is the infection of the larynx or the voice box.
  • The spread of Infection to the lungs can result in bronchitis, pneumonia, and bronchial asthma.
  • Sinusitis, wherein the infection spreads to the sinuses and causes headache and blockage of the nasal airway.

How do you fight the common cold? Treatment and medicines

Treatment of common cold with medicines is mainly to relieve the symptoms and to treat the superadded bacterial infection, if present.

  • Antipyretic medicines such as paracetamol for fever.
  • Anti-inflammatory medicines like ibuprofen for inflammation of the throat
  • Decongestants in the form of drops or sprays to relieve congestion. You should use such nasal decongestants for a few days only as prolonged use can damage the nasal mucosa and give rise to chronic inflammation.
  • Cough syrups for relief from cough.
  • Antihistamines for the relief of allergic symptoms.
  • Antibiotics to treat any superadded bacterial infection if present. However, take these on the advice of your medical practitioner.

Important Note: Children below the age of 2 years should not be given any of the OTC medicines mentioned above as serious complications can occur.  They should be treated under medical supervision only.

How to prevent a cold?

Follow these simple steps to prevent catching a cold.

  • If you have come in contact with a person having a cold, keep a safe distance from him.
  • Do not use or touch any objects, which are being used by the infected person, such as pens, cups, etc.
  • All family members should wash their hands several times a day with soap or disinfectant.
  • Keep the utensils in the house properly washed and scrubbed,
  • Use tissues, which can be thrown away after use.
  • Keep your house well ventilated.
  • If you smoke, refrain from it as you become more prone to catching the viral infection.
  • Keep your family’s body resistance high. Make it a family habit of drinking lemon or orange juices every day. These citrus fruits contain vitamin C, which helps in increasing your body resistance.

Natural remedies for the common cold

  • A glass of lemon juice mixed with one or two tablespoons (as per your taste) of honey. Lemon contains vitamin C, which increases body resistance and honey has antiseptic and antioxidant properties.
  • Steam inhalation through the nose and mouth for clearing a stuffed nose and for fermenting a sore throat.
  • Salt warm water gargling – again for fermenting the sore throat.
  • A glass of hot milk with turmeric.  Milk helps by giving proper nutrition and increasing body resistance and turmeric is a natural antiseptic and antibacterial agent.
  • A clove of garlic and onions with one of your meals will be helpful. They have antibacterial and antiviral properties.
  • Echinacea is a purple-colored flower and has been found to be useful if taken at the onset of the common cold.