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Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others

Mother wiping young child's noseSore throat and runny nose are usually the first signs of a cold, followed by coughing and sneezing. Most people recover in 7-10 days or so. Protect yourself and others by taking simple steps.

Common colds are the main reason that children miss school and adults miss work. Each year in the United States, there are millions of cases of the common cold. Adults have an average of 2-3 colds per year, and children have even more.

Most people get colds in the winter and spring, but it is possible to get a cold at any time of the year. Symptoms usually include sore throat, runny nose, coughing, sneezing, watery eyes, headaches and body aches. Most people recover within about 7-10 days. However, people with weakened immune systems, asthma, or respiratory conditions may develop serious illness, such as pneumonia.

Rhinoviruses

  • cause colds
  • trigger asthma attacks
  • have been linked to sinus and ear infections

Many different viruses can cause the common cold, but rhinoviruses are the most common. Viruses that cause colds can spread from infected people to others through the air and close personal contact. You can also get infected through contact with stool or respiratory secretions from an infected person. This can happen when you shake hands with someone who has a cold, or touch a doorknob that has viruses on it, then touch your eyes, mouth, or nose.

How to Protect Yourself and Others

You can help reduce your risk of getting a cold:

Photo: Father showing young son how to wash hands properly
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water
    Scrub them for 20 seconds, and help young children do the same. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Viruses live on your hands, and regular handwashing can help protect you from getting sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands
    Viruses can enter your body this way and make you sick.
  • Stay away from people who are sick
    Sick people can spread viruses that cause the common cold through close contact with others.

Other Viruses

Other viruses that can cause cold-like symptoms:

If you have a cold, you should follow these tips to prevent viruses from spreading to other people:

  • Stay at home while you are sick
  • Avoid close contact with others, such as hugging, kissing, or shaking hands
  • Move away from people before coughing or sneezing
  • Cough and sneeze into a tissue then throw it away, or cough and sneeze into your upper shirt sleeve, completely covering your mouth and nose
  • Wash your hands after coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose
  • Disinfect frequently touched surfaces, and objects such as toys and doorknobs

There is no vaccine to protect you against the common cold.

Photo: Mother giving sick son orange juice

How to Feel Better

There is no cure for a cold. To feel better, you should get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids. Over-the-counter medicines may help ease symptoms but will not make your cold go away any faster. Always read the label and use medications as directed. Talk to your doctor before giving your child nonprescription cold medicines, since some medicines contain ingredients that are not recommended for children. Learn more about symptom relief.

Antibiotics will not help you recover from a cold. They do not work against viruses, and they may make it harder for your body to fight future bacterial infections if you take them unnecessarily. Learn more about when antibiotics work.

When to See a Doctor

You should call your doctor if you or your child has one or more of these conditions:

  • a temperature higher than 100.4° F
  • symptoms that last more than 10 days
  • symptoms that are severe or unusual

If your child is younger than 3 months old and has a fever, you should always call your doctor right away. Your doctor can determine if you or your child has a cold and can recommend therapy to help with symptoms.

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