The common cold is exactly that – very common. Most adult have around two to three colds a year and young children can experience them even more frequently. Colds are often harmless, but they don’t always feel that way when you’re dealing with a stuffy nose, cough or fever.

We’ll explain what common cold symptoms look like, remedies that can help you feel better and when to see a doctor.

What is the common cold?

The common cold is a viral infection in your upper respiratory tract (nose and throat). Many viruses can cause a cold, but the most common one is called rhinovirus. The viruses that cause the cold are spread through the air and close contact with someone who is sick.

Common cold symptoms

Symptoms of the common cold can vary from person to person. Most people experience common cold symptoms one to three days after they’re exposed, but some symptoms like a cough or runny nose can stick around for up to 10-14 days.

Typical common cold symptoms are:

  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sneezing
  • Congestion
  • Mild headache
  • Low-grade fever (around 99.5 to 100.3 degrees Fahrenheit)

How do you know if it's a cold or something else?

The flu, COIVD-19 and allergies all have symptoms that overlap with the common cold. But there are subtle ways to distinguish between them. At-home test kits or a visit to your doctor for specialized testing can also help you get an official diagnosis.

Is it a cold or COVID-19?

COVID-19 and the common cold share most of the same symptoms. But a loss of taste or smell is unique to COVID-19. Some people with COVID-19 may never have symptoms. The best way to know if you have COVID-19 or a cold is to do a test. You can do an at-home antigen test or get tested for COVID-19 at HealthPartners and Park Nicollet, and test results are often available within 72 hours.

Is it a cold or influenza?

Colds and influenza (the seasonal flu) share common symptoms like cough, sore throat and runny nose, so it can sometimes be hard to tell if you have a cold or the flu. Influenza symptoms are often worse and come on more suddenly. Cold symptoms often go away quickly on their own while the flu can result in more serious health problems like pneumonia or bacterial infections if left untreated.

Is it a cold or allergies?

Seasonal allergy symptoms like coughing or a runny or stuffy nose are also common cold symptoms, but there are some easy ways to tell if you have a cold or allergies. Seasonal allergies don’t cause fevers and often come with itchy eyes, nose or throat. Allergies are also very predictable and show up around the same time each year.

Are colds contagious?

Yes, colds are contagious. The cold virus spreads through air droplets when someone sneezes or coughs, or they have contact with contaminated objects. Touching your eyes, nose or mouth after contact with the virus is when you’re most likely to catch a cold.

How long does the common cold last?

How long the common cold lasts can vary from person to person, but most people recover within 5-10 days. People who smoke or have other health conditions may experience a longer recovery time.

How do you catch a cold?

As we mentioned earlier, most people catch a cold when they touch their eyes, mouth or nose after exposure to air droplets or a surface that is contaminated with the cold virus.

Certain risk factors can increase your chances of catching a cold, including:

  • Age – Colds are more common for young children and the elderly.
  • Exposure – The more people you are around, the more likely you’ll be to come in contact with the cold virus.
  • Season – Fall and winter see more cases of colds than other times of the year.
  • Poor health – People who suffer from chronic illness or are immunocompromised can catch colds more often due to a weakened immune system.
  • Smoking – Smokers or people who have regular exposure to secondhand smoke get colds more often.

Can you catch a cold from being cold?

No, you can’t catch a cold from being cold. It is a common myth, but you must have contact with the cold virus to catch a cold.

How long is the common cold contagious?

The common cold is contagious one to two days before symptoms are present and for up to two weeks after you show symptoms. But the common cold is at its most contagious two to four days after symptoms start. Avoiding contact with others while you’re symptomatic is the best way to prevent spreading your cold to others.

How to prevent a cold

There is no vaccine to prevent a cold, but you can decrease your risk by working some of these recommendations into your daily routine:

  • Regularly wash your hands for at least 20 seconds
  • Avoid contact with your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands
  • Clean high touch surfaces regularly with a disinfectant
  • Don’t share food, glasses or utensils with others
  • Eat well, exercise regularly and get enough sleep
  • Keep your distance from family or friends when they have a cold

Cold remedies and treatments

The common cold often goes away on its own, but there are lots of over-the-counter medications and home remedies out there that can ease your symptoms and help you feel better. Try some of these options the next time you want to get rid of a cold fast.

Over-the-counter cold medication

Whether you want to reduce a fever or break up congestion, there are over-the-counter medications out there to help you get relief while you have a cold. Common over-the-counter cold medications include:

  • Pain relievers like Tylenol or Advil can help dull the pain from a headache or sore throat and help bring down a fever.
  • Cough syrups like Robitussin or Mucinex (also known as expectorants) break up mucus to help you get relief from congestion.
  • Decongestant nasal sprays like Zicam and Afrin can provide temporary relief from nasal congestion and stuffiness but shouldn’t be used for more than three or four days in a row as they can become addictive.
  • Cough drops contain ingredients like honey or menthol that can sooth a sore throat and cough.

It’s a good idea to speak to a clinician before trying an over-the-counter medication for the first time, especially with young children.

Get support from a nurse. When you need advice fast, call your 24/7 nurse. For HealthPartners patients and members, our CareLine features registered nurses who are there for you anytime, 365 days a year, to answer all sorts of health questions. And best of all, there’s no cost to you.

Home remedies for cold

In addition to over-the-counter treatments, there are some easy things you can try at home to relieve your cold symptoms, including:

  • Drink plenty of fluids – We recommend plenty of water, but juice is also okay.
  • Try tea or soup – Warm liquids can be soothing and help with congestion.
  • Gargle saltwater – Adding half a teaspoon of salt to an eight-ounce glass of water can help you get some relief from a sore throat.
  • Take vitamins or supplements – You may not be getting all the vitamins you need from food or your environment while you’re sick. Taking certain vitamin supplements may help fill in nutritional gaps, just talk with your doctor first.

When to go to the doctor for a cold

Most people can treat their symptoms with over-the-counter cold medication and do not need to see a doctor for the common cold. But you should get in touch with a clinician if:

  • You notice that your cold symptoms are getting worse when they should be improving
  • You or your child has a fever of 103 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, or your child is:
    • Under 2 months old and has a fever
    • 2 to 3 months old and has a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher
    • 3 to 6 months old and has a temperature of 102 degrees or higher.
    • 6 to 24 months old and has a temperature of 102 degrees or higher that lasts longer than a day.
  • You experience difficulty breathing or are wheezing
  • You have severe throat, headache, ear or sinus pain
  • You have unusual drowsiness or lack of appetite

Convenient options to get care for a cold

We make it easy to get care for a cold when you need it with in-person and virtual visit options.

Make an appointment for face-to-face care from a primary care doctor or clinician

Whether you choose a video visit or in-person appointment, your doctor will listen to your symptoms, answer questions and work with you to create a tailored treatment plan.

Start a virtual visit anytime, anyplace through Virtuwell

With Virtuwell, no appointment is necessary – and treatment is available 24/7. Getting started is easy. We’ll ask you a few questions, and you’ll get your diagnosis and treatment plan from a board-certified nurse practitioner. Each visit is just $59 or less, depending on your insurance.