Sneezing, stuffy and runny nose? You might have a cold. Colds are one of the most frequent reasons for missed school and work. Every year, adults have an average of 2 to 3 colds, and children have even more.
Antibiotics do not work against viruses that cause colds and will not help you feel better.
More than 200 viruses can cause a cold, but rhinoviruses are the most common type. Viruses that cause colds can spread from person to person through the air and close personal contact.
Many factors can increase your risk for catching a cold, including:
- Close contact with someone who has a cold
- Season (colds are more common during the fall and winter, but it is possible to get a cold any time of the year)
- Age (infants and young children have more colds per year than adults)
Symptoms of a cold usually peak within 2 to 3 days and can include:
- Stuffy nose
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
- Mucus dripping down your throat (post-nasal drip)
- Watery eyes
- Fever (although most people with colds do not have fever)
When viruses that cause colds first infect the nose and air-filled pockets in the face (sinuses), the nose makes clear mucus. This helps wash the viruses from the nose and sinuses. After 2 or 3 days, mucus may change to a white, yellow, or green color. This is normal and does not mean you need an antibiotic.
Some symptoms, particularly runny nose, stuffy nose, and cough, can last for up to 10 to 14 days, but those symptoms should be improving during that time.
baby icon See a doctor right away if your child is younger than 3 months old and has a fever of 100.4 °F (38 °C) or higher.
See a doctor if you have:
- Difficulty breathing or fast breathing
- Fever that lasts longer than 4 days
- Symptoms that last more than 10 days without improvement
- Symptoms, such as fever or cough, that improve but then return or worsen
- Worsening of chronic medical conditions
This list is not all-inclusive. Please see a doctor for any symptom that is severe or concerning.
Because colds can have similar symptoms to flu, it can be difficult to tell the difference between the two illnesses based on symptoms alone. Flu and the common cold are both respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses.
In general, flu is worse than a cold, and symptoms are more intense. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose. Colds generally do not result in serious health problems, such as pneumonia, bacterial infections, or hospitalizations. Flu can have very serious associated complications.
Your doctor can determine if you have a cold by asking about symptoms and doing a physical examination.
There is no cure for a cold. It will get better on its own—without antibiotics. Antibiotics won’t help you get better if you have a cold.
When antibiotics aren’t needed, they won’t help you, and their side effects could still cause harm. Side effects can range from minor issues, like a rash, to very serious health problems, such as antibiotic-resistant infections and C. diff infection, which causes diarrhea that can lead to severe colon damage and death.
Below are some ways you can feel better while your body fights off a cold:
- Get plenty of rest.
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Use a clean humidifier or cool mist vaporizer.
- Use saline nasal spray or drops.
- For young children, use a rubber suction bulb to clear mucus.
- Breathe in steam from a bowl of hot water or shower.
- Suck on lozenges. Do not give lozenges to children younger than 4 years of age.
- Use honey to relieve cough for adults and children at least 1 year of age or older.
Ask your doctor or pharmacist about over-the-counter medicines that can help you feel better. Always use over-the-counter medicines as directed. Remember, over-the-counter medicines may provide temporary relief of symptoms, but they will not cure your illness.
Be careful about giving over-the-counter medicines to children. Not all over-the-counter medicines are recommended for children of certain ages.
- Pain relievers:
- Children younger than 6 months: only give acetaminophen.
- Children 6 months or older: it is OK to give acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
- Never give aspirin to children because it can cause Reye’s syndrome, a rare but very serious illness that harms the liver and brain.
- Cough and cold medicines:
- Children younger than 4 years old: do not use unless a doctor specifically tells you to. Use of over-the-counter cough and cold medicines in young children can result in serious and potentially life-threatening side effects.
- Children 4 years or older: discuss with your child’s doctor if over-the-counter cough and cold medicines are safe to give to your child for temporary symptom relief.
Be sure to ask your doctor or pharmacist about the right dosage of over-the-counter medicines for your child’s age and size. Also, tell your child’s doctor and pharmacist about all prescription and over-the-counter medicines they are taking.
You can help prevent colds by doing your best to stay healthy and keep others healthy, including:
- Clean your hands.
- Avoid close contact with people who have colds or other upper respiratory infections.
- Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Don’t smoke and avoid secondhand smoke.