Cough/Cold/Allergy: The Common Cold


The common cold is a highly contagious acute viral infection of the upper respiratory system. In the United States, cold season typically occurs from late August through early April, but can occur at any time. The common cold is often considered to be one of the leading causes of absence from both work and school. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 22 million days are lost from school each year due to the common cold. Annually, children typically get 6 to 10 colds, while adults younger than 60 years may get 2 to 4 colds, and those older than 60 years may get 1 cold.

Signs and Symptoms

The severity of cold symptoms can vary from individual to individual. Colds typically last from 7 to 14 days. Cold symptoms often have a gradual onset and develop over 2 to 3 days after infection with the cold virus. You may initially experience a sore or irritated throat. If a fever is present, it tends to be low grade (less than ) and more likely to develop in infants and young children. A hacking, mucus-producing cough and slight body aches and pains are often present with the common cold. Nasal congestion and sneezing are also very common.


The common cold may be caused by more than 200 viruses, but most colds are caused by rhinoviruses. Rhinoviruses can live up to 3 hours on your skin and on surfaces and objects such as doorknobs and telephones.

Tests and Diagnosis

There are no medical tests to diagnose the common cold. Diagnosis is commonly based on a patient’s symptoms or physical examination, if warranted.


Various preventive measures can be implemented to decrease your chance of getting a cold or transmitting the virus to others. For example:

  • Hand washing with soap and warm water is considered to be one of the most effective means of cold prevention, so wash your hands often and keep them away from your eyes and nose. If the cold virus is on your hands, it can easily enter through your eyes and nasal cavity.
  • When water isn’t available, the CDC recommends using alcoholbased hand sanitizers to disinfect your hands.
  • If possible, avoid being near people who have colds or when you have a cold.
  • When you sneeze or cough, cover your nose or mouth.
  • Sneeze or cough into your elbow or a tissue instead of your hand.
  • Routine cleaning of environmental surfaces with disinfectants may also minimize the spread of the cold virus.


Most colds resolve with minimal treatment and without complications. If you have a cold, it is important to get rest when needed, to drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration, and to treat bothersome symptoms as needed. If symptoms worsen or do not improve, patients should immediately contact their doctor to avoid further complications. This is especially true for young children, elderly individuals, and those with chronic medical conditions.

Treatment and Care

Currently, there is no cure for the common cold, but many OTC medications are marketed to provide symptomatic relief for sore throat, congestion, cough, and fever, if present. Examples of these OTC cough and cold medications include:

  • Decongestants
  • Antihistamines
  • Expectorants and cough suppressants
  • Antipyretics/analgesics (fever and pain)

In addition, several products contain anesthetic and antiseptic ingredients for treating the pain and disdiscomfort associated with sore throats. Several nonpharmacologic measures can be used to provide symptomatic relief:

  • If you have a sore throat, you can gargle with warm salt water, let ice chips melt in your mouth, or use throat sprays or lozenges.
  • For relief from nasal congestion, you can use a saline nasal spray or a vaporizer.

Homeopathic and Alternative Remedies

Many individuals may wish to use homeopathic or alterative medication for relief of cold symptoms or for cold prevention. Homeopathic/alternative medications include:

  • Echinacea
  • High-dose vitamin C supplements
  • Zinc lozenges, tablets, or oral sprays


To avoid potential drug—drug interactions or drug–disease interactions if you elect to use a nonprescription cough and cold medications, be sure to inform your pharmacist of your allergy history, medical conditions, and any medications that you take. Nonprescription cough and cold medications should not be given to children younger than 4 years, and pediatricians should be consulted for other treatment options. Also, remember that routine hand washing is an effective way to minimize the risk of getting a cold.

Resources for Patients

  • American Lung Association
  • Medline Plus
  • Nemours Foundation

Resources for Pharmacists

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • NIH National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Related Content