Common Cold: Symptoms, Causes, Risks, Complications, Diagnosis, Treatment and Prevention

Women who have common cold


Many times a year, people get infected with a common cold. This is a condition caused by a viral infection. It is the infection of the upper respiratory tract, that is self-limited but very contagious. It is commonly called common cold, but in medical terms, it’s dubbed as a viral upper respiratory tract infection.

A cold is a mild viral infection that affects the nose, sinuses, throat and the upper airways. At first, it looks like the flu, since they both affect the respiratory tract and usually clear up on their own. However, they are caused by different viruses.

The common cold is also known as acute viral rhinopharyngitis or acute coryza.
This is caused by the rhinovirus or the coronavirus. Unfortunately, the body never builds resistance to the various viruses that cause the common cold. That is the reason behind the recurrence of common colds, as much as many times per year. It is most often contracted during the cold or winter season. In some places, it’s common during the rainy season.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), preschool children can get an average of about 12 colds each year, compared to older people, who have about just seven each year.


The symptoms of common colds will typically take a few days to appear after being infected with the virus. The common signs and symptoms include:

Nasal symptoms:

  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Pressure in the sinuses
  • Stuffy nose
  • Loss of smell and taste
  • Frequent sneezing
  • Postnasal drip
  • Watery nasal secretions

Whole-body symptoms

  • Extreme tiredness or fatigue
  • Body pains
  • Chills
  • Low-grade fever
  • Cough
  • Chest discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty to deep breathe

Head symptoms

  • Headache
  • Watery eyes
  • Sore throat
  • Inflamed lymph nodes


Although the many types of viruses can cause common colds, the most common causes are rhinoviruses. The virus enters the body through inhalation of droplets in the air through the eyes, nose, and mouth. This can be passed from one person to another through droplets suspended in the air when an infected person coughs, talks or sneezes.

The virus can also spread through hand-to-hand contact or sharing objects that are contaminated with the virus such as towels, telephone toys, and utensils.

About 200 different viruses can cause common colds. Rhinoviruses cause as much as 50 percent of colds but the other viruses linked to the development of common colds include:

  • Metapneumovirus
  • Human parainfluenza virus
  • Enteroviruses
  • Coronaviruses
  • Human respiratory syncytial virus

4Risk Factors

There factors that may increase the risk or tendencies of getting common colds, like:

Compromised immune system – People with weakened immune systems are at a higher risk of developing the disease.

Age – Children who are under six years old are at the greatest risk of having colds, particularly if they spend time in school or daycare centers.

Smoking – People who are smoking are more likely to catch a common cold.
Also, they tend to have more severe symptoms.

Time of the year – During the rainy season, cold or winter seasons, the risk of acquiring common colds is higher compared to the other seasons of the year.

Exposure – Being around many people like in malls, airplanes and schools may increase the risk of being exposed to the common cold viruses. This is particularly higher if the area is enclosed and there is no ventilation.


If the common cold does not go away and is left untreated, it may lead to various complications such as:

Acute bronchitis – This condition happens when the bronchi in the lungs become inflamed as a result of a viral or bacterial infection. Common colds may progress to acute bronchitis if the infection goes down to the airways.

Otitis media or ear infection – Acute infection may occur when the pathogens enter the space behind the eardrum through the Eustachian tube. This may lead to ear pain.

Acute sinusitis – Common colds may lead to acute sinusitis or the inflammation of the sinuses.

Asthma – An asthma attack can be triggered by common colds, especially in children.

Pneumonia – Common colds, if left untreated, may lead to a serious lung infection called pneumonia. This happens when the lungs become infected and inflamed. If pneumonia occurs, the pathogen of the common cold could be bacterial.


Most patients with common colds are diagnosed based on their signs and symptoms.
The doctor can assess the patient and determine if the cause is bacterial or viral.
If the cause is bacterial, he can recommend using an X-ray to detect the signs of pneumonia and other complications.


At present, there is no cure for common colds. Since it’s a viral infection, it is self-limiting, which means that it can go away on its own. The treatment options available are symptomatic or are used to treat the symptoms of the disease. Antibiotics are not used for this infection since it won’t work on cold viruses. Antibiotics are just used when the doctor confirms that the cause of the cold is bacterial. The common treatments include:

Over-the-counter pain relievers – Over-the-counter pain relievers will relieve the symptoms of common colds such as a headache, sore throat and body pains. However, make sure you still get a prescription from the doctor to prevent adverse effects.

Cough syrups – If the person has a cough, the doctor can prescribe a cough syrup. However, doctors usually do not prescribe cough syrups to children who are younger than four years old.

Decongestant nasal sprays – These nasal sprays can be used to relieve colds for up to five days. However, do not use this longer than five days because it can cause rebound symptoms.

Home Remedies

No cure could treat common colds. However, many home remedies can be used to relieve the signs and symptoms of the disease. These include:

Rest – The best way to treat common colds is to rest. The presence of a virus in the body means that the body is trying its best to fight the infection. This may lead to fatigue. Taking a rest is important to support the body’s immune system.

Hydration – Drink plenty of water and fluids to stay hydrated. When you have colds, the body uses a lot of fluids to combat the infection and create nasal fluids. You need to make sure you’re hydrated to reduce the risk of complications and dehydration.

Eating chicken soup – Warm fluids like a chicken soup can be soothing and can help loosen the secretions and congestion in the nose.

Saltwater gargle – Soothe the throat through a saltwater gargle by mixing ¼ to ½ teaspoon of salt dissolved in an 8-ounce glass of warm water.

Soothing foods – Eating healing foods can be effective in reducing the symptoms of colds. Ginger is effective in reducing sore throats and easing a cough. You can make a ginger tea and sip it with honey.


At present, there is no vaccine available to prevent the common cold. However, there are precautionary measures you can do to slow the spread of cold viruses and to prevent infection.

Practice proper hand washing – Wash your hands with soap and water regularly, especially before eating or after handling common surfaces such as doorknobs, telephones, and tables.

Use tissue – When you sneeze and cough, use tissues and discard them right away after use. Do not use a handkerchief because this could harbor the virus and could easily spread to other people.

Disinfect objects and surfaces – Disinfect objects and surfaces such as bathroom and kitchen countertops, kids’ toys and telephones, especially when there is someone in the house with common colds.

Avoid close contact with someone who has a cold – Make sure you steer clear of colds by avoiding crowded places and coming in close contact with a person who has a common cold.

Do not share drinking glasses or utensils – If someone in the house has a cold, make sure you do not use his or her utensils and drinking glasses.

Take care of oneself – Boost one’s immune system by eating healthy foods, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep.

Choose the daycare center properly – When choosing your child care center, make sure they are clean and has good hygiene practices.

9Difference between cold and flu

Sometimes, it is hard to determine if it’s a common cold or the flu. Though both of them are caused by viruses, the symptoms are also similar. However, the difference is that flu symptoms are more severe and intense.

People infected with flu may feel weaker and the symptoms may take two or three weeks. There is also high fever, chills, and cold sweats. The common signs and symptoms of flu include:

  • Severe headache
  • Extreme tiredness or fatigue, which can last for weeks
  • Tiredness and weakness
  • Body and joint pains
  • Coughing
  • Dry or a sore throat
  • Runny nose

Moreover, flu has an available vaccine that can reduce the risk of contracting the virus. This can also be treated with antivirals, especially for people who are prone to the complications linked to flu such as those who are infants, pregnant and older adults.