William & Mary

Common Cold

What is a common cold?

What we call a "cold" is an infection of the nasal and throat mucus membranes by any one of about 200 types of viruses. The average adult gets 2-3 colds per year.

What are the symptoms of a common cold?

The most common symptoms of a cold are:

  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Sore throat
  • Malaise
  • Low grade fever
  • Runny nose
  • Congestion
How are the viruses that case a common cold spread?

Viruses that are responsible for colds are easily spread by person to person contact. Most frequently, the virus is on the cold-sufferer's skin, and is transmitted by direct contact to the hands of the unsuspecting recipient, who then touches their eyes or nose, thus acquiring the same virus. "Cold" viruses can live on human skin for up to 2 hours. Alternatively, the cold virus can be shed on inanimate surfaces, and picked up by the hands of the susceptible recipient. Direct transmission of respiratory droplets by coughing or sneezing is another effective way for cold viruses to be spread.

How can I prevent a common cold?
  • Wash your hands frequently or use hand sanitizers.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • If you have a cold, wash your hands frequently.
  • If you have a cough, cough into your arm to prevent hand contamination.
  • Get adequate rest, eat a balanced diet, and manage stress as well as possible.
  • Some evidence shows that regular exercise can decrease susceptibility to colds.
What measures do not work for a common cold?
  • Antibiotics (effective for bacterial illnesses, not for viruses)
  • High dose Vitamin C
  • Echinacea
  • Zinc
What measures do help with a common cold?
  • Over the counter cough suppressant (dextromethorphan) may be helpful to some individuals for cough.
  • The behind the counter decongestant pseudoephedrine may help for sinus congestion. (The over the counter decongestant phenylephrine is not very effective.)
  • Over the counter acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) will help low-grade fever and achiness.
  • Antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or chlorpheniramine may help dry up a runny nose, but can cause sleepiness.
  • Cromolyn Sodium (NasalCrom) is available over the counter, and may help cold symptoms if used 3 or 4 times per day.
What symptoms of a common cold should I seek medical attention for?
  • Pain in teeth or sinuses
  • Persistent fever over 101F or 38C
  • Shortness of breath, trouble breathing, or chest pressure/tightness
  • Wheezing
  • Prolonged cough
  • Shaking chills
  • Symptoms that get worse
  • If no improvement after 10 days