Sneezing, a runny nose, or a stuffy nose are the first signs of a cold, which is the most common illness known to cause missed days of work and school. Although the symptoms are mild, a cold usually lasts one to two weeks. This fact sheet offers current information for health managers and other program staff who may educate parents and staff on how to control outbreaks of the common cold.
You can get infected by cold viruses by either of these methods.
- Touching your skin or environmental surfaces, such as telephones and stair rails, that have cold germs on them and then touching your eyes or nose
- Inhaling drops of mucus full of cold germs from the air
Symptoms of the common cold usually begin 2 to 3 days after infection and often include
- Mucus buildup in your nose
- Difficulty breathing through your nose
- Swelling of your sinuses
- Sore throat
Fever is usually slight but can climb to 102 degrees Fahrenheit in infants and young children. Cold symptoms can last from 2 to 14 days, but like most people, you'll probably recover in a week. If symptoms occur often or last much longer than 2 weeks, you might have an allergy rather than a cold.
Colds occasionally can lead to bacterial infections of your middle ear or sinuses, requiring treatment with antibiotics. High fever, significantly swollen glands, severe sinus pain, and a cough that produces mucus, may indicate a complication or more serious illness requiring a visit to your healthcare provider.
There is no cure for the common cold, but you can get relief from your cold symptoms by
- Resting in bed
- Drinking plenty of fluids
- Gargling with warm salt water or using throat sprays or lozenges for a scratchy or sore throat
- Using petroleum jelly for a raw nose
- Taking aspirin or acetaminophen, Tylenol, for example, for headache or fever
A word of caution: Several studies have linked aspirin use to the development of Reye's syndrome in children recovering from flu or chickenpox. Reye's syndrome is a rare but serious illness that usually occurs in children between the ages of 3 and 12 years. It can affect all organs of the body but most often the brain and liver. While most children who survive an episode of Reye's syndrome do not suffer any lasting consequences, the illness can lead to permanent brain damage or death. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children and teenagers not be given aspirin or medicine containing aspirin when they have any viral illness such as the common cold.
Over-the-counter cold medicines
Nonprescription cold remedies, including decongestants and cough suppressants, may relieve some of your cold symptoms but will not prevent or even shorten the length of your cold. Moreover, because most of these medicines have some side effects, such as drowsiness, dizziness, insomnia, or upset stomach, you should take them with care.
Over-the counter antihistamines
Nonprescription antihistamines may give you some relief from symptoms such as runny nose and watery eyes which are commonly associated with colds.
Never take antibiotics to treat a cold because antibiotics do not kill viruses. You should use these prescription medicines only if you have a rare bacterial complication, such as sinusitis or ear infections. In addition, you should not use antibiotics "just in case" because they will not prevent bacterial infections.
Although inhaling steam may temporarily relieve symptoms of congestion, health experts have found that this approach is not an effective treatment.
There are several ways you can keep yourself from getting a cold or passing one on to others.
- Because cold germs on your hands can easily enter through your eyes and nose, keep your hands away from those areas of your body
- If possible, avoid being close to people who have colds
- If you have a cold, avoid being close to people
- If you sneeze or cough, cover your nose or mouth
Handwashing with soap and water is the simplest and one of the most effective ways to keep from getting colds or giving them to others. During cold season, you should wash your hands often and teach your children to do the same. When water isn't available, CDC recommends using alcohol-based products made for washing hands.
Rhinoviruses can live up to 3 hours on your skin. They also can survive up to 3 hours on objects such as telephones and stair railings. Cleaning environmental surfaces with a virus-killing disinfectant might help prevent spread of infection.
Common Cold. HHS/NIH/NIAID. 2006. English.
Last Reviewed: December 2010
Last Updated: September 10, 2015