Woman sneezing by desk

Common Cold


Healthgrades Editorial Staff

What is the common cold?

A cold, often called the common cold, is an extremely widespread upper respiratory infection. Colds are caused by a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract, including the nose and throat. There are about 200 different types of viruses than can cause a cold. The common cold is one of the most common illnesses. If you have a cold, you’re not alone. Each year, there are more than a billion cases of the common cold in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health (Source: NIH).

The effects of a cold can vary between individuals and the specific type of virus causing the infection. Typical symptoms of a cold include sneezing, coughing, sore throat, fatigue, and runny or stuffy nose. Colds are very contagious. They can occur at any time of year but are most common during the winter, especially during damp, rainy weather.

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You can get a cold by inhaling a cold virus, such as when someone who has a cold sneezes nearby. You can also get a cold by touching your eyes, nose or mouth after you have touched a surface that is contaminated with a cold virus.

There is no cure for the common cold, but you can find relief by getting plenty of rest, drinking fluids, using over-the-counter cough drops, or taking over-the-counter cold medicines. In most cases, a cold is a mild, self-limiting disease that resolves by itself over a week or two. Antibiotics do not cure colds and do not shorten their course, so they should not be used for common cold. Most people in good health can recover from the common cold without complications.

In some cases, the common cold can lead to more serious infections and complications, such as pneumonia, acute bronchitis, and a worsening of asthma. People at risk for complications include those who have a chronic disease, an immunodeficiency disorder, a suppressed or compromised immune system, and the very young and very old.

Seek prompt medical care if you have a chronic disease and develop symptoms of a cold or if you have a cold that is not getting better. Seek immediate medical care (Call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have symptoms of a cold accompanied by shortness of breath, wheezing, chest pain, or a change in alertness or consciousness.