Common Cold


The common cold is a viral infection leading to inflammation of the upper respiratory tract (nasal passages and throat).

Sore Throat Due to Inflammation

© 2008 Nucleus Medical Art, Inc.


There are over 200 different viruses known to be responsible for the common cold, including:

  • Rhinovirus
  • Corona virus
  • Adenovirus
  • Coxsackie virus
  • Paramyxovirus
  • Parainfluenza virus
  • Respiratory syncytial virus

Risk Factors

A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition.

  • Exposure to infected individuals
  • Touching one’s nose, mouth, or eyes with contaminated fingers
  • Personal history of allergies (lengthens duration of cold)
  • Smoking cigarettes or frequent exposure to cigarette smoke (due to decreased resistance)
  • Stress (due to decreased resistance)
  • Sex: female (especially around menstrual periods)


Symptoms include:

  • Sore or scratchy throat
  • Stuffy nose
  • Thin mucus discharge from the nose (runny nose)
  • Sneezing
  • Itchy, stuffed sensation in the ears
  • Watery eyes
  • Slight cough
  • Headache
  • Aches and pains
  • Decreased energy
  • Low-grade fever


Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history and perform a physical exam. Diagnosis is based on the symptoms and the findings of your physical exam.


There are no treatments that cure the common cold. However, a number of treatments can help relieve the symptoms, including:

Pain Relievers

Acetaminophen and/or ibuprofen can be used to treat the aches and pains.

Note: Aspirin is not recommended for children or teens with a current or recent viral infection. Check with your doctor before giving a child or teen aspirin.


Pills or nasal sprays can shrink the nasal passages and decrease mucus production. Nasal sprays should only be used for 2-3 days, however. If you use them for longer periods of time, you may suffer from increased congestion (called rebound congestion) when you stop using the product.

In a Public Health Advisory, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold products should not be used to treat infants or children less than two years old. Rare but serious side effects have been reported, including death, convulsions, rapid heart rates, and decreased levels of consciousness. OTC cough and cold products include decongestants, expectorants, antihistamines, and antitussives (cough suppressants). The FDA is still reviewing data concerning the safety of these products in children aged 2-11 years. There have been serious side effects reported in this age group as well. * 2


Drinks lots of fluids. Warm beverages and chicken soup are particularly soothing and help reduce congestion.


A cool mist humidifier can help keep your nasal passages moist and reduce congestion. Be sure to clean the humidifier thoroughly every day.

Saline Nasal Sprays

Saline nasal sprays may provide relief from congestion.

In a study, researchers concluded that the nasal wash may reduce symptoms, medication use (eg, antipyretics, nasal decongestants, antibiotics), and school absence. * 4

Alternative Treatments

There is inconsistent evidence that alternative remedies, such as vitamin C, zinc lozenges, and echinacea, are helpful in preventing colds, reducing symptoms, and lessening the duration of colds.

Based on a study, the roots of a South African geranium plant, called Pelargonium sidoides , may improve cold symptoms and help patients to recover faster. This herb is the main ingredient in Umcka ColdCare and Zucol products. * 1

Another natural remedy studied recently is honey, which appears to improve nighttime cough and sleep disruption in children. Note: Do not give honey to infants younger than 12 months because of the risk of infant botulism. * 3

Herbal treatments are often not well studied, nor are the products regulated. The herbal supplements that you purchase may not have the same constituents as those described in the studies, and they also may contain impurities.

Salt Water Gargle

Gargling with warm salt water can help relieve a sore throat.

Over-the-Counter Cough Drops

Using throat lozenges as needed every couple of hours can help relieve sore throat and cough.


The most important way to prevent getting or spreading a cold is by washing your hands thoroughly and frequently. Keep hands away from nose, mouth, and eyes. Minimize exposure to infected individuals. Reduce or eliminate smoking. Although many people think that taking high doses of vitamin C can reduce the chance of catching a cold, research has not proven this.


American Academy of Family Physicians

American Lung Association


BC Health Guide

Health Canada


Griffith's 5-Minute Clinical Consult . Lippincott, Williams, and Wilkins; 1999.

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases website. Available at: .

* 1 12/4/2007 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance : Lizogub VG, Riley DS, Heger M. Efficacy of a pelargonium sidoides preparation in patients with the common cold: a randomized, double blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Explore (NY). 2007;3:573-584.

* 2 1/30/2008 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance : Public health advisory: Nonprescription cough and cold medicine use in children—FDA recommends that over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold products not be used for infants and children under 2 years of age. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: . Accessed January 30, 3008.

* 3 1/30/2008 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance : Paul IM, Beiler J, McMonagle A, et al. Effect of honey, dextromethorphan, and no treatment on nocturnal cough and sleep quality for coughing children and their parents. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2007;161:1149-1153.

* 4 2/26/2008 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance : Slapak I, Skoupá J, Strnad P, Horník P. Efficacy of isotonic nasal wash (seawater) in the treatment and prevention of rhinitis in children. Arch Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2008;134:67-74.

Last reviewed November 2007 by Kari Kassir, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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