Everyone has had a common cold at some point in their life. The common cold usually causes a runny nose, nasal congestion and sneezing. You may also have a sore throat, headache or other symptoms.

It is called the “common cold” for good reason. There are over one billion colds in the United States each year. Most people have more colds than any other type of illness.

Colds can occur at any time of the year, but they are most common in the winter or rainy seasons.

A cold virus spreads through tiny air droplets that are released when the sick person sneezes, coughs or blows their nose.

You can catch a cold if:

  • A person with a cold sneeze, coughs or blows their nose near you.
  • You touch your nose, eyes or mouth after you have touched something contaminated by the virus, such as a toy or doorknob.

People are most contagious for the first 2 to 3 days of a cold. A cold is usually not contagious after the first week. 

You can help prevent colds by washing your hands or using a hand sanitizer often.


Cold symptoms usually start about two or three days after you come in contact with the virus, although it could take up to a week. Symptoms mostly affect the nose. 

The most common cold symptoms are:

  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Scratchy throat
  • Sneezing

Adults and older children with colds generally have a low fever or no fever. Young children often run a fever around 100-102°F. 

Depending on which virus caused your cold, you may also have:

  • Cough
  • Decreased appetite
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Postnasal drip
  • Sore throat


Most colds go away in a few days. Some things you can do to take care of yourself while you have a cold include:

  • Get plenty of rest and drink fluids.
  • Over-the-counter cold and cough medicines may help ease symptoms in adults and older children. They do not make your cold go away faster, but can help you feel better. Over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold medicines are not recommended for children under age four.
  • Antibiotics should not be used to treat a common cold.
  • Many alternative treatments have been tried for colds, such as vitamin C, zinc supplements and echinacea. Talk to your doctor before trying any herbs or supplements.

Expectations (prognosis)

The fluid from your runny nose will become thicker and may turn yellow or green within a few days. This is normal, and not a reason for antibiotics.

Most cold symptoms usually go away within a week. If you still feel sick after seven days, see your health care provider to rule out a sinus infection, allergies, or other medical problems.

When to call your physician

Try treating your cold at home first. Call your health care provider if:

  • You have problems breathing.
  • Your symptoms get worse or do not improve after seven to ten days.


To reduce your risk of getting a cold:

  • Always wash your hands. Children and adults should wash hands after nose-wiping, diapering, and using the bathroom, and before eating and preparing food.
  • Disinfect your environment. Clean commonly touched surfaces (such as sink handles, door knobs and sleeping mats) with an EPA-approved disinfectant.
  • Choose smaller daycare classes for your children.
  • Use instant hand sanitizers to stop the spread of germs.
  • Use paper towels instead of sharing cloth towels.

Your immune system helps your body fight off infection. Here are ways to support your immune system:

  • Avoid secondhand smoke. It is responsible for many health problems, including colds.
  • Do not use antibiotics if they are not needed.
  • Breastfeed infants if possible. Breast milk is known to protect against respiratory tract infections in children, even years after you stop breastfeeding.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to help your immune system work properly.
  • Eat yogurt that contains “active cultures.” These may help prevent colds. Probiotics may help prevent colds in children.
  • Get enough sleep.