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Common cold

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.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications Prevention

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
  • Cough
  • Congestion
  • Slight body aches or a mild headache
  • Sneezing
  • 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

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.

Cold viruses are almost always present in the environment. But the following factors can increase your chances of getting a cold:

  • Age. Infants and preschool children are especially susceptible to common colds because they haven't yet developed resistance to most of the viruses that cause them. But an immature immune system isn't the only thing that makes kids vulnerable. They also tend to spend lots of time with other children and frequently aren't careful about washing their hands and covering their mouths and noses when they cough and sneeze. Colds in newborns can be problematic if they interfere with nursing or breathing through the nose.
  • Immunity. As you age, you develop immunity to many of the viruses that cause common colds. You'll have colds less frequently than you did as a child. However, you can still come down with a cold when you are exposed to cold viruses or have a weakened immune system. All of these factors increase your risk of a cold.
  • Time of year. Both children and adults are more susceptible to colds in fall and winter. That's because children are in school and most people spend a lot of time indoors. In warmer climates where cold weather doesn't keep people inside, colds are more frequent in the rainy season.
  • Acute ear infection (otitis media). Ear infection occurs when bacteria or viruses infiltrate the space behind the eardrum. It's a frequent complication of common colds in children. Typical signs and symptoms include earaches and, in some cases, a green or yellow discharge from the nose or the return of a fever following a common cold. Children who are too young to verbalize their distress may simply cry or sleep restlessly. Ear pulling is not a reliable sign.
  • Wheezing. A cold can trigger wheezing in children with asthma.
  • Sinusitis. In adults or children, a common cold that doesn't resolve may lead to sinusitis — inflammation and infection of the sinuses.
  • Other secondary infections. These include strep throat (streptococcal pharyngitis), pneumonia, and croup or bronchiolitis in children. These infections need to be treated by a doctor.

No vaccine has been developed for the common cold, which can be caused by many different viruses. But you can take some common-sense precautions to slow the spread of cold viruses:

  • Wash your hands. Clean your hands thoroughly and often, and teach your children the importance of hand-washing.
  • Scrub your stuff. Keep kitchen and bathroom countertops clean, especially when someone in your family has a common cold. Wash children's toys periodically.
  • Use tissues. Always sneeze and cough into tissues. Discard used tissues right away, and then wash your hands carefully. Teach children to sneeze or cough into the bend of their elbow when they don't have a tissue. That way they cover their mouths without using their hands.
  • Don't share. Don't share drinking glasses or utensils with other family members. Use your own glass or disposable cups when you or someone else is sick. Label the cup or glass with the name of the person with the cold.
  • Steer clear of colds. Avoid close, prolonged contact with anyone who has a cold.
  • Choose your child care center wisely. Look for a child care setting with good hygiene practices and clear policies about keeping sick children at home.
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