Common Cold Learning Center

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Common Cold


A cold is a common viral infection of the upper respiratory tract—namely, your nose and throat. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Americans “catch” an estimated one billion colds every year. Typical cold symptoms include a runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing, coughing, and a sore throat. Colds can occur at any time during the year but are most common in the winter months.

Colds affect young children more often than adults. Most adults suffer from about two to four colds per year. According to Boston Children’s Hospital, children—those ages 6 and under in particular—may experience up to six to 10 colds annually. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year children miss a total of nearly 22 million school days because of the common cold. It’s also the number one reason for doctor visits in the United States, according to the American Lung Association.  

How Is the Common Cold Contracted?

Colds are spread through direct contact with a person infected by one of the common cold viruses. This contact can come through touching the infected person’s hand or through inhaling contaminated fluid droplets that are spread when the infected person sneezes, coughs, speaks, or wipes their nose. If you are standing near a person with a cold virus, you are at risk. Many surfaces and shared objects such as doorknobs, children’s toys, towels, kitchen utensils, and phones may also be covered with cold virus particles.

Touching an infected person or surface and then touching your nose, mouth, or eyes will often lead to a cold. To infect you, a cold virus needs to reach the mucous membranes, which are the moist, thin layers of tissue that lines the inside of the nose and mouth. During cold season, it is essential to avoid touching your face when out in public and to wash your hands frequently with soap and hot water. Clean home surfaces, children’s toys, and your work area as well to avoid contracting the virus. You might even consider carrying disinfecting wipes in your briefcase or purse.

Cold sufferers are most contagious during the first two to three days of a cold and usually stop being infectious after one full week of the illness.

How Long Do Most Colds Last?

Most colds last for one to two weeks. If cold symptoms linger or if they appear to be worsening, call your doctor. Sometimes, cold symptoms may contribute to the development of a secondary infection like sinusitis, strep throat, bronchitis, and pneumonia.

Therefore, it’s important to see your doctor if symptoms do not improve within 10 days or if you or your child develops a fever of 100.4 F. The CDC recommends calling your doctor if a child under three months develops a fever of any type.

Young children, older adults, and those with chronic health conditions or weakened immune systems are at higher risk for cold-related complications.      

Young children frequently develop ear infections as a result of a cold. Common symptoms of this are if your child has a cold and complains of an earache, develops a fever, or has green or yellow nasal discharge.  If your infant has cold symptoms and is not sleeping well or crying incessantly, these are symptoms as well. Call your pediatrician if ear infection symptoms are present. 

Content licensed from:

Written by: the Healthline Editorial Team
Published on Jul 30, 2014
Medically reviewed on Jul 30, 2014 by Kenneth R. Hirsch, MD

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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