The common cold is a viral infection of your upper respiratory tract — your nose and throat. A common cold is usually harmless, although it may not feel that way at the time. If it’s not a runny nose, sore throat and cough, it’s the watery eyes, sneezing and congestion — or maybe all of the above. In fact, because any one of more than 100 viruses can cause a common cold, signs and symptoms tend to vary greatly.
Preschool children are at greatest risk of frequent colds, but even healthy adults can expect to have a few colds each year.
Most people recover from a common cold in about a week or two. If symptoms don’t improve, see your doctor.
Although more than 100 viruses can cause a common cold, the rhinovirus is the most common culprit, and it’s highly contagious.
A cold virus enters your body through your mouth, eyes or nose. The virus can spread through droplets in the air when someone who is sick coughs, sneezes or talks. But it also spreads by hand-to-hand contact with someone who has a cold or by sharing contaminated objects, such as utensils, towels, toys or telephones. If you touch your eyes, nose or mouth after such contact or exposure, you’re likely to catch a cold.
Symptoms of a common cold usually appear about one to three days after exposure to a cold-causing virus. Signs and symptoms of a common cold may include:
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Itchy or sore throat
- Slight body aches or a mild headache
- Watery eyes
- Low-grade fever
- Mild fatigue
The discharge from your nose may become thicker and yellow or green in color as a common cold runs its course. What makes a cold different from other viral infections is that you generally won’t have a high fever. You’re also unlikely to experience significant fatigue from a common cold.
When to see a doctor
For adults — seek medical attention if you have:
- Fever of 103 F (39.4 C) or higher
- Fever accompanied by sweating, chills and a cough with colored phlegm
- Significantly swollen glands
- Severe sinus pain
For children — in general, children are sicker with a common cold than adults are and often develop complications, such as ear infections. Your child doesn’t need to see the doctor for a routine common cold. But seek medical attention right away if your child has any of the following signs or symptoms:
- Fever of 100.4 F (38 C) in newborns up to 12 weeks
- Fever that rises repeatedly above 104 F (40 C) in a child of any age
- Signs of dehydration, such as urinating less often than usual
- Not drinking adequate fluids
- Fever that lasts more than 24 hours in a child younger than 2
- Fever that lasts more than three days in a child older than 2
- Vomiting or abdominal pain
- Unusual sleepiness
- Severe headache
- Stiff neck
- Difficulty breathing
- Persistent crying
- Ear pain
- Persistent cough