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Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment For The Common Cold

The Common Cold: What Is It and How To Treat It

Camille Freking, MS Pharmacology Profile Photo

Written by Camille Freking, MS Pharmacology on December 3, 2021

There are a few things you just can’t avoid in life. Just like taxes, the common cold affects all of us sooner or later. But that certainly doesn’t make it easier to deal with or more comfortable to endure.

People in the United States collectively experience 1 billion common colds every year, and most people experience a cold during the fall or winter. But even though colds can affect our everyday lives more often than any other type of illness, most of us have no idea how they work, why they are so contagious, or how we can effectively treat the symptoms of common colds without taking cheap, additive-packed medicine.

Plus, lots of parents notice that their kids seem to get common colds much more often than they do. What gives? And is there any healthy, clean cold medicine to find?

If you’ve ever asked yourself any of these questions or are interested in finding effective, healthy cold medicine for you or your children, you’ve come to the right place. In this guide, we’ll break down not only what the common cold is, but also how it works, why the symptoms of the common cold are the way they are, and what kinds of medicine you should use to treat a cold’s symptoms. Let’s dive in.

What Is The Common Cold?

At its core, the common cold is a type of minor viral infection that usually settles in the nose and throat. There are many different types of viruses that can cause the common cold. In fact, the most common virus that causes cold symptoms is the rhinovirus which has over 100 different varieties of the virus.

The common cold develops when a virus enters your body through the nose or eyes. After entering your body and remaining undetected by your body’s immune system, the common cold quickly replicates by infecting normal cells and filling them with its RNA (genetic material similar to DNA). Gradually, the infected cells release more viruses that spread the infection around.

When you get a cold, you may experience a number of unpleasant symptoms. Children or elderly folks might have a slightly harder time with these symptoms, but no common cold is particularly dangerous. Occasionally, common colds can lead to more serious illnesses like bronchitis or croup.

Common cold symptoms include:

  • A runny nose or stuffy nose
  • A sore throat
  • General fatigue or exhaustion
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Coughing
  • Nasal congestion or blocked sinuses
  • Sneezing
  • A mild headache
  • Body aches
  • A low-grade fever
  • And more

Interestingly, the viral infection itself is not what causes the symptoms of a cold in most cases. In fact, your symptoms are caused by your immune system’s reaction to the infection.

Each of us has a dedicated immune system composed of white blood cells, antibodies, and other factors that work in conjunction with one another to defend us against viral or bacterial infections.

When your immune system detects the presence of a viral invader, your immune system kicks into high gear. One of the ways it might try to defend you is by increasing your body’s internal temperature. This is known as a fever.

Fevers are created by your immune system to make a more inhospitable environment to the virus. As a result, viral material breaks down over time, even though fevers can be quite uncomfortable for both adults and children.

But your immune system may also engage other defenses or responses, which cause most of the common cold’s classic symptoms. For example, your immune system will release inflammatory mediators such as histamines or prostaglandins. Both of these can cause your blood vessels to dilate, which is responsible for your nose clogging up and leaking fluid.

Furthermore, these responses may cause your mucous glands to secrete more mucus, which causes a runny nose. Your sneeze and cough reflexes may be triggered as a side effect, and pain receptors around your body may spark randomly, causing muscle aches and pains. All in all, the symptoms of a common cold are side effects of your immune system’s ongoing battle with a viral infection.

Colds are incredibly common and adults can expect to get between two and three common colds per year. Children under the age of six are more likely to get colds more often because their immune systems do not yet have experience with common viruses, so they have to build up immunity over time.

Despite their widespread appearance, common colds are not very dangerous and can usually be dealt with by resting and taking medicine to alleviate major symptoms. Your body’s immune system should tackle any cold within a few days and restore things to normal.

Is The Common Cold A Virus?

Yes. A common cold must be caused by a virus for it to count. There are over 200 different viruses in circulation throughout the world, and these colds are constantly mutating. As a result, it’s almost impossible for our immune systems to become totally immune to these crafty cold viruses.

However, the vast majority of colds are caused by rhinovirus: a class of viruses that is particularly active in the fall, spring, and early summer. In total, the rhinovirus type causes between 30% and 50% of all colds.

But it’s not uncommon to get a common cold from the class of viruses called coronavirus. This is the same class of viruses that COVID-19 belongs to. But most coronaviruses are much less virulent and potentially dangerous than COVID-19, so you might not need to worry if you or your child is affected by this type of cold in most cases.

Coronavirus cells tend to be most active in the winter and early spring, possibly because they operate better in colder temperatures. In total, it’s estimated that coronavirus colds make up around 20% of total reported cold illnesses including upper respiratory infections. Fortunately, although there are more than 30 types of coronavirus cells, only three or four are known to affect humans.

The last major types of viruses are RSV and parainfluenza. Both viral types combined cause the remaining 20% or so of typical colds. In rare cases, infections with these viruses can lead to severe conditions such as pneumonia, particularly in young children. But all in all, they are also not particularly dangerous compared to more serious illnesses. Adenoviruses and enteroviruses can also cause colds.

Differences Between the Cold and Flu

The flu is another common illness that lots of people get about once per year during the so-called “flu season.” There are good reasons why people draw similarities between both types of ailments. For example, both are types of respiratory illnesses.

However, the flu is typically understood to be significantly worse than a common cold. Not only are the symptoms of the flu more intense, but the flu may even lead to hospitalization or other medical complications if it is bad enough. There are annual vaccinations to help prevent the spread of the flu, but there isn't an equivalent for common colds (because there are so many different viruses that cause the common cold). You may be more likely to develop a flu if you have risk factors like a weakened immune system or advanced age.

Want to know whether you have the flu or a cold? Flu symptoms share many similarities with cold symptoms but are generally more intense. You are likely to feel more aches and pains and run a higher fever with the flu than you will with a common cold.

How Contagious is the Common Cold?

The common cold is quite contagious, though this isn’t necessarily because one particular virus is among the most virulent. It’s common in part because the viruses flood the mucus and other bodily fluids you might expel while sick, making it more likely for you to accidentally infect a person near you just by being in close contact.

During a respiratory infection, large amounts of the virus can be present in practically every respiratory droplet when you talk, cough, or sneeze. Therefore, it’s quite easy for you to accidentally spread virulent fluid from yourself to another person by:

  • Breathing on a shared surface
  • Coughing near someone
  • Sneezing on or near someone
  • Sneezing or rubbing mucus onto your hand, then touching something

The ease of viral transmission is a big reason why it’s recommended that anyone with a common cold stay home until they are feeling well. It’s quite easy for you to accidentally transfer a common cold virus from yourself to another person since there are so many potential vectors for transmission. Even touching your eyes and then shaking the hand of another person who isn’t currently infected could do the trick, which is one reason why regular handwashing (or at least using hand sanitizers!) is so important.

The trouble is that many common cold viruses are robust or durable enough that they will last for several hours on the surface of the skin before gaining an opportunity to enter the body through the mouth, eyes, or nose.

Even worse, it’s possible for a common cold to spread because the sick person may not recognize that they are ill (yet) or because they feel better and believe that they are no longer contagious. In reality, healthy adults can infect other people with a common cold for up to one day before any symptoms develop and up to a whole week after becoming sick. Kids can also pass common cold or flu viruses for up to seven days after experiencing their symptoms.

As a result, the best rule of thumb is to keep yourself or your child home for about a week after getting the flu or a bad cold in order to limit transmission.

Focusing on decreasing the spread of the virus is important and a key part of social responsibility, as we all have learned during COVID-19. Just one student going to school, for instance, while ill with a common cold can result in the entire school eventually coming down with the disease. The same goes for an infected adult going to work or visiting a public place, like a restaurant or a movie theater.

Bottom line: do yourself, your loved ones, and society a favor when you are sick by remaining home, resting, and taking medicine, if needed, to alleviate your major symptoms while your immune system does what it does best.

How Long Does The Common Cold Last?

As soon as a cold virus enters your body, it immediately starts looking for a suitable host. Viruses do not have all of the cellular organelles to survive on their own. They are parasitic creatures that require healthy cells in order to replicate and survive.

As a result, any cold virus can latch onto one of your healthy cells within minutes of entering your body. Within 8 to 10 hours of initial infection, a virus will have spread through a variety of formerly healthy cells by infecting them with its RNA and forcing them to replicate more viral copies.

It can take 10 to 12 hours after the initial infection for you to feel symptoms, as it takes little time for enough viruses to build up enough for your immune system to detect the infection and respond to it.

Many people experience their initial cold symptoms between one and three days after initial exposure to the virus. Note that flu and other viruses can be a little different; it can take up to a week with certain viruses for symptoms to fully appear.

Once your body is infected with the cold, your immune system will already be in gear and fighting the virus through a variety of methods, such as fevers, runny noses, and more. Average cold lengths range from 7 to 10 days, although it’s not necessarily uncommon for kids or older folks to have minor symptoms for two weeks or longer.

Is that a sign of intense danger? Not necessarily. Sometimes it just takes your immune system a little longer to clean up all the viruses remaining, especially if it had a late start on catching a particular cold. This being said, it’s never a bad idea for you to visit a doctor or take your child to one if you believe a cold has run for a worryingly long amount of time, or if your symptoms suddenly become more severe.

Cold Timeline

If you want to track the progress of your cold to make sure that it isn’t anything dangerous, you can track your symptoms through a variety of stages as follows:

  • The incubation period is right after you're exposed to a cold virus. This includes the first 1 to 3 days for you to develop symptoms.
  • The peak period is when your cold symptoms reach their highest level of discomfort. You’ll feel the worst during days 2 to 4 after infection.
  • The fading period is when your symptoms should start to level off. While you may still experience fatigue or general discomfort, you should feel a little better compared to the peak period.
  • The resolution period occurs after five days and can last for up to two weeks. You might still experience minor symptoms like a slightly runny nose or a tickle in the back of your throat for this entire time, but you should be fully on the mend at this point.

Note that it’s important to stay home and try not to get into contagious situations if you still have minor symptoms. The presence of any cold symptoms means that you are still contagious to people who are not infected with the virus or whose immune systems are unprepared.

What Causes The Common Cold?

Let’s get technical about common cold causes.

In general, you’ll get a common cold from someone who is already infected with a particular virus. Viruses can remain active in human populations by incubating or hibernating in our bodies for short periods of time, before making the leap to another person through moisture in the breath, eyes, nose, or elsewhere.

It’s in this way that many colds continue to circulate through a population for years or even decades despite individuals forming a personal immunity to the virus in question.

To catch a cold, you must first come into physical contact with the virus, usually with your hands or mouth. The virus, either by reaching your mouth directly or by landing on your hand and then touching your mouth or eyes, eventually settles into the lining of your nose or throat. It immediately seeks out host cells so it can begin the replication process.

At this point, your immune system has probably received an alert that there's a virus in your body. It sounds out a rapid response of white blood cells and may even start a low-grade fever, all in an attempt to stop the virus from spreading as far as it would otherwise.

This action results in your nose and throat becoming inflamed, making extra mucus, and the other symptoms described above. Your body uses a lot of extra energy to fight the cold virus, which may cause you to feel fatigued or exhausted, even in the morning.

Your immune system proceeds with the battle against the virus, using white blood cells and a fever to dismantle infected cells and restore things to normal. Again, your immune system is largely responsible for the symptoms you feel during a cold, although cold viruses are the ones that trigger such responses in the first place.

Can Cold Temperatures or Water Cause Colds?

The above myth is so common that many people believe that going outside in cold weather or staying wet for too long will cause you to “catch a cold”. But this myth is not true in the slightest.

Indeed, cold temperatures don’t do anything that may cause you to become more vulnerable to a cold virus, nor does getting wet or staying soaked for a short period of time, such as getting caught in the rain.

However, it is true that certain conditions or effects could make you a little more vulnerable to infection by a cold virus. That's because your immune system is connected to your body in more ways than one. It uses the same energy pool as the rest of your bodily systems.

So if you are tired or fatigued, or if you haven’t eaten well in a few days, your immune system will not be as effective as it would otherwise. This may present an opportunity for a prospective virus to infect your body and cause a cold.

Similarly, other conditions that lower your general bodily health could have a negative impact on your immune system and make you more vulnerable to infection. For example, many cancer patients find that they are more vulnerable to common colds because their chemotherapy and other treatments sometimes destroy immune system cells and may generally weaken their bodies.

Therefore, if you want to avoid infection, your best bet is to remain hydrated, healthy, and make sure that your body gets all the vitamins and minerals it needs for holistic health.

Should You Send Your Kid To School If They Have a Cold?

Definitely not. As mentioned earlier, you don’t know what kind of virus is causing the cold that they have and you could be sending your kids to school spreading something like COVID-19 or RSV to other people who could be quite vulnerable to the illnesses. Colds are quite contagious because of how they force your body to release more fluids than usual. Even if they didn’t, the trace amounts of moisture in your breath will still carry plenty of viral material to infect anyone unsuspecting if you stand near them for too long.

Young children are also particularly bad when it comes to hygiene and taking care of themselves if they have a cold. We’ve all seen kids rub their eyes or noses and immediately go back to handling objects or playing with toys without washing their hands first. At school, you aren’t able to watch your child and make sure that they practice good cold hygiene the entire time.

Even without these aspects, kids usually feel quite under the weather when they get a cold. Your child’s immune system isn’t as well developed as your own. It takes time for an immune system to gather the viral record or history necessary to recognize and stop most cold viruses before they take effect.

Until they’re teenagers, kids will get colds pretty frequently. Their symptoms may seem to be a little more severe or dramatic than your own, but this may be a matter of perspective; kids don’t really have serious illnesses to compare a minor cold to in most cases.

Regardless, don’t send your children to school or daycare because:

  • You don’t know what viral illness is causing the cold symptoms
  • They can easily affect other kids or teachers
  • They won’t feel their best
  • They won’t do as well in school as they would otherwise, which may result in them testing poorly or receiving low marks for other assignments
  • Sending your child to school and forcing them to expend a lot of energy could drag on their cold symptoms for much longer

Remember, your body has to expend a lot of energy to effectively fight any cold. If you send your kid to school, they’re walking around and using their brain, and maybe even playing. All of that takes energy their bodies could better use for fighting off a common illness.

How To Treat Your Kid's Common Cold

Now that you know that sending your child to school isn’t a great idea, let’s break down how you should treat your child’s common cold whenever they get one. One thing to remember is that you won’t be able to treat the viral infection yourself; only your child’s immune system will be able to do that.

Instead, your role as a parent is to treat their symptoms and to make sure that your child is as comfortable and restful as possible. Making a positive, healthy environment for them to recover in is key if you want them to get over a common cold as soon as possible.

Lots of Rest

For starters, take your child out of school and make sure they're getting plenty of rest throughout the day, especially in the peak viral period when their symptoms will likely be the most intense. Kids already need more sleep and general rest than adults, so you should encourage your child to take naps throughout the day and recline on a couch or in a chair otherwise.

If your kid seems really under the weather or fatigued, don’t worry. That’s a natural side effect of their body using all available energy to tackle a viral infection.

Furthermore, if your child experiences a low-grade fever, take their temperature and don't worry unless their temperature reaches 101°F or so. If their temperature is above 101°F or lasts more than 3 days, consult their pediatrician. A mild fever is a regular side effect of any common cold and is a sign that their body is working properly to fight off the infection.

It is okay for your child to be somewhat active, but try to not let them engage in any strenuous physical activity. You should also prevent them from doing any highly challenging homework or mental exercises, at least for the first few days after contracting a cold. Even doing homework can cost their bodies valuable energy that could be better used defeating the cold currently running rampant.

Fluids and Healthy Foods

Another common side effect of a typical cold is dehydration or loss of appetite. This is especially true for kids, who may feel so strange when they get a cold that they respond by not wanting to eat or drink anything, even their favorite dishes or drinks.

However, you should still encourage them to eat and drink regularly. Make sure they keep up with meals (unless they are nauseous) and give them plenty of fluids like water or juice - but mostly water - so they stay hydrated. Hydration is more important than food on average since their bodies will be expending more water either through evaporation (due to a fever) or through mucus and tear overproduction.

This is especially important if your child runs a regular fever. They’ll need extra water to keep their fever regulated so they don’t become too hot as it burns away the infection. These home remedies may seem simple, but they're effective. Other home remedies like echinacea, elderberry, and vitamin C have varying levels of scientific evidence to back them up, but they may also help reduce common cold symptoms.

Clean Medicine

Alongside the above two treatments, you can also give your child real medicine, made clean. Rather than relying on the cheaply made, common cold medications you can find in pharmacies or grocery stores, you should look for high-quality, clean cold medicine that gets the job done without all the unnecessary artificial ingredients.

No Antibiotics Unless Ordered

One last thing – many concerned parents will go to the doctor’s office seeking antibiotics or purchase antibiotics for their children as soon as they get a common cold. This stems from a lack of understanding about what a cold is and where it comes from.

As their name suggests, antibiotics are treatments for bacterial infections. This goes directly against how you should treat a cold since they’re a health problem caused by viruses, not bacteria. There are no antiviral medications for treating the common cold.

Furthermore, antibiotics are indiscriminate in their effects. In a nutshell, they may accidentally destroy positive or helpful bacteria in your child’s intestinal tract or throughout their body. We rely on probiotics so we can digest our food properly and so other bodily systems work correctly.

Giving your child antibiotics regularly could cause a host of negative side effects and won’t do anything to alleviate their cold symptoms. Unless your doctor specifically recommends antibiotics to treat an underlying or secondary bacterial infection, do not give your child these medicines.

What's Wrong With Traditional Cold Medicines?

There is no cure for the common cold. For the most part, cold medicines are only meant to alleviate symptoms of the cold and not to eradicate the illness. Treating a cold with cold medicine is generally not necessary, but can certainly make a cold much more tolerable.

Many well-meaning parents simply take a trip down to the pharmacy and pick up the first cold medicine they see when their child comes down with a minor bug. But although their hearts are in the right place, these parents may accidentally be giving their children potentially harmful medication.

Indeed, the modern cold medicine industry has a lot of problems. Let’s break down this issue in more detail so you know exactly why you should avoid these commonly available formulas when treating your child.

What Kinds of Cold Medicines Are There?

There are cold medicines for practically any cold symptoms these days. These include:

  • Nasal decongestants. These cold medicines can help unclog any congested noses for kids or adults, and they work by narrowing the blood vessels that line your nose and reducing swollen tissue. These medicines, which often contain active ingredients like oxymetazoline and phenylephrine, are also effective for treating a postnasal drip. These medications can also come in the form of salt water nasal sprays, and are also commonly used for sinus infections or sinusitis.
  • Cough suppressants, which can help treat a regular cough, especially if it is preventing your child from going to sleep. Cough suppressants use active ingredients like dextromethorphan.
  • Expectorants, which can thin mucus in the nose and throat to help your child cough or sneeze it out more easily. By getting rid of excessive mucus, your child may feel better and be able to breathe easier with less chest congestion. Most expectorant cold medicines use the active ingredient guaifenesin.
  • Antihistamines, which block the release of the inflammatory agent histamine. This can be useful if your child is having an allergic reaction, but can also be used to relieve cold symptoms like sneezing, itchiness, coughing, watery eyes, and more. Most antihistamines use active ingredients like diphenhydramine, doxylamine, brompheniramine, and more.
  • Pain relievers, which can help relieve muscle aches and general pain in your child's body. Pain relievers can be purchased over the counter and often contain acetaminophen or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) like ibuprofen.

You can also purchase healthy, clean medicine for your child that tackles common cold symptoms. Some people may want to avoid common OTC cold medication for a few key reasons.

Inactive Ingredients in Common Cold Medicines

For starters, many common cold medicines have tons of unnecessary inactive ingredients. In short, the active ingredient in cold medicine is what makes the medication effective for suppressing a cough or relieving pain.

Inactive ingredients are used for other reasons, such as improving the flavor of cold medicine, allowing it to be digested more easily, or even acting as preservatives so the medicine lasts for longer on a store shelf.

Naturally, your child doesn’t need to take cold medicine filled with synthetic additives like artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and saccharin, used to mask a bitter taste. Not only is this stuff potentially bad for their developing bodies, but it can also trigger an occasional allergic reaction depending on your child’s existing sensitivity to certain ingredients.

Responsible parents will want to look for an effective cold medication that only includes necessary ingredients instead of long lists of inactive additives.

Unnecessary Dyes in Cold Medicines

Furthermore, lots of kids' medication in particular is formulated with synthetic dyes. It's well-known that kids are picky eaters, and they may not take cold medicine if it's not attractive enough. But that's no reason for medicine companies to create bright red or purple cold medicines through the use of artificial dyes when natural, fruit-based alternatives exist.

Indeed, many artificial dyes used in cough and cold medicine can be potentially harmful to your child. Even if your child doesn't have a negative reaction after absorbing artificial dye, their bodies still don't need that additive as they are growing and/or recovering from an illness.

Dishonest Marketing

Lots of parents already recognize that kids’ cold medicines are often marketed incorrectly or dishonestly. For example, many cold medicine companies will claim that kids can take over-the-counter cold medicine regularly after just a few hours in between doses.

In reality, it’s better for kids to take cold medicine sparingly, especially when they are on the younger side when dosing should be directed by a medical provider. The FDA specifically recommends that kids don’t take any cold medicine until they are at least two years old.

But medicine companies don’t necessarily want you to know that. They’d rather you purchase as much cheap medicine as possible so they can make a greater profit.

However, just because the shelves of your local grocery store may be lined with cheap medicine for kids doesn’t mean you aren’t able to find effective, clean medicine when needed.


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