Kashif J. Piracha, MD, is board-certified in internal medicine and nephrology. He has an active clinical practice at Methodist Willowbrook Hospital in Houston, Texas.
The cold is a very common upper respiratory tract viral infection that causes symptoms such as:
The diagnosis of a common cold is straightforward and based on classic symptoms and signs. Diagnostic tests, like a chest X-ray or nasal/throat swabs, are really only used to evaluate you for alternative diagnoses, like pneumonia or the flu.
The treatment of a common cold is aimed at easing symptoms, and often includes rest and taking an over-the-counter medication, like a decongestant and/or mild pain reliever.
People are most contagious with the common cold for the first two to four days after they develop symptoms. However, it’s possible to spread the virus for up to three weeks. Children are generally more contagious than adults. Cold viruses are most often spread by droplets expelled when you sneeze or cough.
How long a cold will last is unpredictable. Most colds last between seven and 10 days. However, it’s possible for them to last anywhere from two days to two weeks. Symptoms usually peak in one to three days, although a cough may linger. If your symptoms persist for an especially long time, or they continue to get worse, see your doctor. You may have something more serious than a cold.
While there’s no cure for the common cold, you have a lot of options for managing symptoms, including:
Cough suppressants have been found to provide little relief from coughs associated with the common cold.
Certain foods contain vitamins and nutrients that may boost your immune system and help you fight a cold, including:
A decongestant is a medication that helps alleviate congestion, like you have with the common cold. They work by decreasing inflammation in the blood vessels in your nose and airways, which is what causes congestion. That means mucus can drain and air can flow more efficiently. Examples of decongestants are:
Rhinovirus is the most frequent cause of the common cold, which can be caused by more than 200 other viruses, as well. Rhinoviruses also are linked to:
Other viruses that can cause the common cold include adenovirus, human coronaviruses, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
The upper respiratory tract comprises the nose, sinuses, and throat. Upper respiratory tract infections (URIs), such as the cold, are common causes of illness. They’re caused by hundreds of “common cold” viruses, influenza A and B, parainfluenza virus, Bocavirus, and many other pathogens. Symptoms include nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing, sore throat, and cough.
A viral infectious disease is an illness caused by infection with a virus. Viruses are tiny germs that invade your cells and multiply there, damaging or killing your cells and causing illness. Examples of viral infectious diseases include:
National Institutes of Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine. Viral Infections. MedlinePlus. Updated October 19, 2020.