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Cough & Cold

What You Need to Know About the Common Cold

Woman working on her laptop and coughing

What causes the common cold? How long does a cold last? What are common cold symptoms? These are all good questions⎯and ones that are commonly asked about the common cold. In this article, we’ll answer the Web’s most frequent queries about colds. By the time you’re done reading this, you’ll practically be a bonafide common cold expert!

What is the common cold?

The common cold is essentially an infection caused by a virus that affects the upper respiratory tract⎯the nose, throat, and nasal passages.

What causes the common cold?

There are actually over 200 viruses that cause the common cold. About half of the time, the common cold is caused by a family of viruses called rhinoviruses. Other examples of viruses that can cause cold symptoms are: respiratory syncytial viruses, human parainfluenza viruses, adenoviruses, enteroviruses, human coronaviruses, and human metapneumoviruses.

How is the common cold spread?

Colds are spread from nasal secretions from an infected person that contain the cold virus. If someone gets these secretions on their hands and then touches their mouth, nose, or eyes, the virus can get into the body and start a cold. Occasionally, colds can be spread by someone breathing in droplets containing the virus that were coughed or sneezed out by someone who is sick.

How long does it take for cold symptoms to start after you’ve been infected?

Cold symptoms start to appear between 1 and 3 days after infection.

What are common cold symptoms?

The common cold usually starts with a sore, scratchy throat, sneezing, and a runny nose. Later on, people may develop a headache, stuffy nose, cough, chills, muscle aches, or a mild fever. In the beginning, nose secretions may be watery, but as a cold progresses, these secretions may become thicker.

All in all, possible cold symptoms include:

  • Sore, sratchy throat
  • Runny nose
  • Coughing
  • Congestion
  • Sneezing
  • Headache
  • Mild body aches
  • Low-grade fever
  • Malaise (general feeling of being unwell)

How long are you contagious for after you get the common cold?

Colds are most easily spread during the first 1 to 2 days after symptoms develop.

How long does the common cold last?

Colds usually go away after about 4 to 10 days. A cough caused by the common cold can last into the second week.

What’s the difference between the common cold and the flu?

In general, the flu comes on much faster than the common cold and symptoms are more intense. With a cold, the first signs are typically a sore, scratchy throat and runny nose, whereas with flu, people come down very quickly with a fever, muscle soreness, sore throat, dry cough and/or headache. The flu also usually lasts longer than a cold. To learn more about the difference between the cold and the flu, click here

Why is there no vaccine for the common cold?

The common cold can actually be caused by hundreds of different viruses. The most common family of viruses that causes colds are rhinoviruses of which there are more than one hundred kinds. To make matters more complicated, these viruses continually change and mutate. Developing a vaccine for the common cold would be extremely difficult because it would have to protect against all the different possible viruses and keep up with all the different mutations.

How common is the common cold?

Pretty common, actually. It’s estimated that adults get on average 2 to 3 colds every year. For children, the number is even higher.

How can you prevent getting the common cold?

While there’s no surefire way to prevent a cold, there are measures you can take to reduce your chances of getting one. Wash your hands often to remove germs, and avoid close contact with people who have a cold. Also, try to avoid touching your face if you haven’t washed your hands.