Common Cold

Common Cold

  1. What is the “common cold” and how is it caused?
  2. What are the symptoms of a cold?
  3. How long does the cold typically last?
  4. Do I need antibiotics?
  5. What can I do to feel better?
  6. Prevention of infection, and spread!


The common cold is a viral infection affecting the upper airway, including the nose, sinuses, and throat. It is the most common infectious disease within the human population. Rhinovirus is by far the most common strain of viruses causing the common cold, and there are almost 100 different variations of this virus alone. Other virus types are of the coronavirus, adenovirus, respiratory syncytial, or para-influenza families. Winter is the season with the highest infectivity rates.

This infection is commonly marked by what are known as “coryzal symptoms”, which classically refers to a runny nose, congestion, sore throat, and often a cough. Also associated are generalized myalgia (muscle ache), headache, and malaise. Fevers are less common. Cold infection is different from Influenza (commonly known as the “flu”). Symptoms of the common cold are generally less pronounced or severe than with Influenza. Also, it is important to note that sputum color can range from clear to yellow or green, but does not correlate specifically with a causative organism such as a virus vs. bacteria.

Cold viruses begin to result in symptoms following less than 24 hours after being exposed to the virus. Usually, a person infected by a common cold virus will reach almost complete resolution 7-10 days. However, in some cases a cold may last longer if other co-existing diseases are already exhausting a person’s immune system.

Examples include other lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pulmonary fibrosis, transplant patients taking immunosuppressive therapy, patients with cancer who are actively undergoing chemotherapy, or a rare congenital immunodeficiency. Other risk factors include both children and workers at daycare, poor sleep, and increased amounts of stress.

It is commonly misperceived that antibiotics are for “sore throat” and “colds”. Antibiotics are not given for common cold infections, due to the cause being viral not bacterial. While it may be frustrating not to receive what seems to be an effective treatment, please seek to understand and gain appreciation for your doctor’s assessment and recommendations if you are experiencing these symptoms.

Supportive, symptomatic therapy is the cornerstone of treatment. This includes increased hydration, fruits and vegetables, and adequate amounts of sleep. Appetite may be affected and possibly decreased, so continuing adequate caloric intake in the form of chicken soup, broths, etc. can be a helpful although non-specific step. Exercise does increase circulation, blood filtration, and can improve energy levels, although often individuals may not feel well enough for vigorous physical activity. While these recommendations seem commonplace, you would be surprised at how infrequently they are strongly and wholeheartedly acted upon.

Prevention of the common cold consists of the following good practices: Washing your hands frequently, regardless if you yourself are affected or merely around a sick contact. Also, do not touch anything with contaminated hands. Disposable facemasks are available at major grocery centers (usually near the pharmacy section), and can also help prevent airborne-droplet spread of a cold virus. Furthermore, reasonable avoidance of sick contacts is encouraged both during infection, and also recovery.

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