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Common Cold

Last updated March 6, 2018

Approved by: Krish Tangella MD, MBA, FCAP

CDC/Betty G. Partin

Common Cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract. More than 200 types and sub-types of viruses cause the condition, but most commonly Rhinoviruses cause the Cold.

What are the other Names for this Condition? (Also known as/Synonyms)

  • Cold
  • Upper Respiratory Tract Viral Infection

What is Common Cold? (Definition/Background Information)

  • Common Cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract. More than 200 types and sub-types of viruses cause the condition, but most commonly it is caused by Rhinoviruses
  • The condition affects millions of people all over the world every year, with no racial, gender or age bias. However, young children under the age of 6 are more prone to frequent Colds than individuals belonging to any other age group
  • Additionally, more cases of the condition are seen in certain seasons such as the fall and winter. Common Cold spreads through air droplets when the infected individual speaks, sneezes, or coughs. It can also spread through contact with the infected individual, or through surfaces he/she may have touched (after touching their nose, ear, or mouth)
  • Stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, post-nasal drip, cough, sore throat, fever and body aches are some symptoms of the condition. The complications may include sinus infections, ear infections, throat infections, and pneumonia
  • If the symptoms are more severe than usual, or if the condition persists without improvement beyond 10 days, seeking medical help is advisable to avoid complications of secondary bacterial infections
  • Common Cold is typically self-diagnosable in adults, and recognizable in children. If complications develop, the medical professional may conduct physical examinations, assess the presenting symptoms, and use other relevant tests to diagnose secondary infections or other complications
  • There is no treatment available for a Common Cold; it usually resolves on its own within 7-14 days. However, increased fluid intake, use of cool-mist humidifiers, saline nose drops and analgesics, may help relieve discomfort
  • Frequent hand washing, avoiding contact with infected individuals, and keeping oneself well hydrated may help prevent catching a Common Cold. Nevertheless, the prognosis of the condition is excellent and most people recover within 2 weeks

Who gets Common Cold? (Age and Sex Distribution)

  • The Common Cold is a major cause of absence from school and work every year. It affects individuals of all ages and races
  • It is estimated that an adult gets a Cold about 2-4 times a year, while a child may have 6-8 occurrences annually
  • Males and females are equally susceptible to the condition

What are the Risk Factors for Common Cold? (Predisposing Factors)

The following are some risk factors for getting Common Cold:

  • Age: Children under the age of 6 years (owing to their ‘not yet fully functional’ immune systems, and being in close contact with other children, such as daycare facility or school)
  • Conditions of low humidity (such as during fall and winter seasons), when the lining of the respiratory tract can lose moisture
  • Smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke
  • Exposure to toxic fumes or pollutants
  • Stress
  • Being in crowded environments (such as crowded places, traveling to work in a local bus or train, etc.)
  • Using certain drugs that suppress the immune system (such as after an organ transplantation)
  • Being immune-compromised, owing to conditions such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection

It is important to note that having a risk factor does not mean that one will get the condition. A risk factor increases ones chances of getting a condition compared to an individual without the risk factors. Some risk factors are more important than others.

Also, not having a risk factor does not mean that an individual will not get the condition. It is always important to discuss the effect of risk factors with your healthcare provider.

What are the Causes of Common Cold? (Etiology)

Over 200 types of viruses are known to cause the Common Cold. These include variants of adenovirus, rhinovirus, parainfluenza virus, coronavirus, enterovirus, and respiratory syncytial virus. Of these, the rhinovirus is responsible for approximately 40% of all cases.

  • The viruses spread through the following means:
    • Through air, via respiratory droplets released when an infected individual speaks, coughs, or sneezes
    • By direct contact with an infected individual, followed by touching one’s face without washing hands
    • Contact with infected surfaces - by touching objects that an infected individual has used/handled, such as elevator buttons, switches, door knobs, and computer keyboards, and then touching one’s face without washing hands

When a virus gains entry into a human body through the mucous membranes of the nasal passage or through the conjunctiva of the eyes (that takes place infrequently), its immune response is activated.

  • This in turn increases the level of cytokines that are secreted by certain immune cells; the cytokines are chemical messengers that bring about a response to the infection. This occurs through an
    • Inflammation in the lining of the mucous membrane of the nasal passage
    • Increase in the level of mucus secretion
  • The inflammation in the nasal passage causes stuffiness. It also causes an irritation in the nose, leading to a tickling sensation that results in a sneeze
  • The excess mucus production drains from the back of the throat, causing symptoms such as cough

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Common Cold?

The symptoms of Common Cold may differ from one individual to another in severity. It may last anywhere between 7-14 days.

The signs and symptoms in infants and young children may include:

  • Nasal congestion
  • Fever
  • Irritability
  • Not sleeping continuously (frequently waking up)
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

The signs and symptoms in older children and adults may include:

  • Runny nose; stuffy nose (nasal congestion)
  • Sneezing
  • Watery eyes
  • Drainage of mucus from the back of throat
  • Cough, sore throat
  • Fever (typically low-grade) and chills
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches (normally mild to moderate)

How is Common Cold Diagnosed?

The diagnosis of Common Cold is generally undertaken based on the set of typical symptoms presented. It is mostly recognizable in infants, children, and adults without visiting a medical facility. However, if the symptoms last longer than 10 days without any improvement or worsen (such as fever over 102°F), seeking medical help is advised.

A medical professional may diagnose a Common Cold and its complications through the following tests and exams:

  • A physical examination and an assessment of symptoms
  • An evaluation of the affected individual’s medical history
  • Listening to the lungs with a stethoscope for abnormal sounds
  • Checking ears with an otoscope for signs of infection
  • Throat culture to check for Streptococcus infection (strep throat)
  • Other tests may be performed depending on the presenting symptoms, as required

Many clinical conditions may have similar signs and symptoms. Your healthcare provider may perform additional tests to rule out other clinical conditions to arrive at a definitive diagnosis.

What are the possible Complications of Common Cold?

Some potential complications in individuals with Common Cold may include:

  • Secondary bacterial infections leading to the following conditions:
    • Strep throat
    • Sinus infection
    • Ear infection
    • Pneumonia
  • Exacerbation of asthma in individuals with the condition

How is Common Cold Treated?

Typically, Common Cold does not require any treatment, as it can resolve by its own. However, the following measures may help relieve any discomfort due to the infection:

  • Drinking plenty of fluids, so the nasal passages and throat remain moist, decreasing irritation
  • Taking analgesics such as acetaminophen for pain
  • Taking antihistamines for runny nose
  • Using nasal decongestants and cough suppressants may be helpful
  • Avoiding smoke; first- or second-hand smoking
  • Gargling with warm water and salt
  • The healthcare provider may recommend vitamin C and zinc supplements
  • For complications that arise due to secondary bacterial infections, antibiotics are generally prescribed

In infants:

  • A cool-mist humidifier may be used in the room
  • Using saline drops for the nose
  • A bulb or syringe may be used to remove mucus from the nose

Care must be taken to complete the course of antibiotics as prescribed, in order to avoid the development of drug-resistant bacterial strains.

How can Common Cold be Prevented?

The occurrence of Common Cold may be prevented through the following measures:

  • Washing hands frequently (at least for 20 seconds) before touching the face or eyes and prior to eating or drinking
  • Avoiding contact with individuals who have Cold
  • Ensuring that infected individuals disposes off used tissues properly
  • Eating a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables
  • Engaging in regular physical activity
  • Asthma patients may be able to avoid exacerbation by getting vaccinated against flu and pneumonia

What is the Prognosis of Common Cold? (Outcomes/Resolutions)

  • The prognosis of Common Cold is excellent, if the affected individual does not develop any complications. Generally, the condition resolves itself with a couple of weeks
  • However, the presence of complications may need visits to a healthcare facility, including taking antibiotics. The complications may prolong the recovery time
  • In individuals with asthma, the asthma may get exacerbated due to a Common Cold. This may necessitate further treatment and hospitalization

Additional and Relevant Useful Information for Common Cold:

Adenovirus is a small infectious agent that causes upper respiratory tract infections, conjunctivitis (eye infection), and other infections in humans. It generally affects the membranes of the respiratory tract, eyes, intestines, and urinary tract.

What are some Useful Resources for Additional Information?

References and Information Sources used for the Article:

Helpful Peer-Reviewed Medical Articles:

Reviewed and Approved by a member of the DoveMed Editorial Board
First uploaded: Jan. 31, 2017
Last updated: March 6, 2018