The common cold
What is the common cold?
The common cold is a viral infection that affects the upper respiratory tract. Colds can occur anytime, but are more common during the winter months. They can cause a sore throat, a stuffy or runny nose, coughing and sneezing. They are different to influenza, or ' the flu'. They are usually not very serious and generally get better by themselves within a couple of days to a week.
A cold is caused by viruses that infect a person's upper respiratory tract, which includes the nose, sinuses, throat (pharynx) and voice box (larynx). There are more than 200 different viruses that can cause a cold, with rhinoviruses the most common cause. The viruses that cause colds are contagious, meaning that they can be easily passed on to another person. Colds can be spread by contact with an infected person, or by breathing in droplets from their sneeze or cough.
Viruses that cause a cold can enter the body through the nose or mouth, where they can affect different parts of the upper respiratory tract. Your body's immune system reacts to the infection to try to clear the virus. This can cause inflammation and excess mucus production, which cause the symptoms of a cold.
Signs and symptoms
The main symptoms of a cold include:
- A stuffy or runny nose;
- Sore throat;
- Headache, and;
These symptoms can last from a couple of days to around a week. A cold can sometimes be confused with the flu, because they can cause similar symptoms, such as a sore throat and cough. But the flu, which is caused by the influenza virus, usually causes other more severe symptoms.
Types of treatment
There is no cure for a cold, but getting lots of rest and drinking plenty of fluids may help your recovery. There are also some over-the-counter medications that can help to relieve some of the symptoms.
Pain-relief medications such as paracetamol, aspirin, or ibuprofen can help to relieve a sore throat, headache or earache. Decongestants, such as pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine, may help to relieve a blocked or stuffy nose. These can be taken as either a nasal spray or as a tablet.
Antibiotics do not help relieve a cold - these medications only help clear infections that are caused by bacteria.
Colds are not usually very serious and generally get better by themselves within a couple of days to a week. However, a common cold can sometimes lead to other complications including:
There is no exact way to prevent getting a cold, but there are several things you can do to reduce your chance of developing one, or passing one on to others. These include:
- Washing your hands often, especially after coughing or sneezing;
- Avoiding close contact with people who have a cold;
- Throwing tissues in the bin after using them, and;
- Staying home from work or school if you have a cold.
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FAQ Frequently asked questions
What is a common cold?
A common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract. The cold can cause a sore throat, a stuffy or runny nose, coughing and sneezing. A common cold is typically not very serious and generally improves without treatment within a couple of days to a week.
What are the symptoms of a common cold?
The main symptoms of a common cold include a stuffy or runny nose, a sore throat, coughing, sneezing and a headache. These symptoms can last from a couple of days to around a week.
What causes a common cold?
A common cold is caused by viruses that infect the upper respiratory tract and affect the nose, sinuses, throat (pharynx) and voice box (larynx). There are more than 200 viruses that can cause a common cold, although rhinoviruses are the most common cause.
How is a common cold treated?
There is no cure for a common cold. Getting plenty of rest and drinking fluids may help recovery from a cold. Some over-the-counter pain relief medications and decongestants can also help to relieve some of the symptoms.
Will a common cold clear up on its own?
Common colds generally improve on their own within a couple of days to a week.
What is the difference between a common cold and the flu?
A common cold can sometimes be confused with the flu as they can have similar symptoms, such as a sore throat, runny nose and a cough. However, the flu is caused by an influenza virus which can lead to more severe symptoms such as a …
Is a common cold contagious?
Common colds are contagious as they are caused by viruses, which are easily spread by droplets from coughs and sneezes of an infected person.
Can I catch a common cold from being cold?
Although common colds occur more frequently during the winter months, you cannot catch a cold just from being cold. Colds are caused by an infection with a virus.
Can a common cold be prevented?
While there are no certain ways of preventing a common cold, you can lower your chances of infection and of infecting others by washing your hands often, especially after coughing or sneezing, and avoiding close contact with people who have a cold.