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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

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