Understanding the Cold Virus

Colds are the most common illness that people get. Most adults get 2 or 3 colds per year, and most children get 5 to 7 colds per year. Colds may be caused by over 200 types of viruses. The most common of these are rhinoviruses (“rhino” refers to the nose).

What causes a cold virus?

All colds start with infection by a virus. You can be infected by more than one cold virus at a time. Infection with cold viruses happens when:

  • You breathe in a virus from the air. This can happen when someone with a cold sneezes or coughs near you.

  • You touch your eyes, nose, or mouth when your hand has a cold virus on it. This can happen if you touch an object that has the cold virus on it.

What are the symptoms of a cold virus?

Almost all colds involve a stuffy nose. Other common symptoms include:

  • Runny nose

  • Sneezing

  • Sore throat

  • Headache

  • Cough

How is a cold treated?

Colds usually last 5 to 10 days. Treatment focuses on relieving symptoms. Treatments may include:

  • Decongestant medicines. Several types of decongestants are available without prescription. These may help reduce stuffy or runny nose symptoms.

  • Prescription or over-the-counter nasal sprays. These may help reduce nasal symptoms, including stuffiness.

  • Prescription or over-the-counter pain medicines. These can help with headaches and sore throat.

  • Self-care. This includes extra rest, using humidifiers, and drinking more fluids. These help you feel better while you are getting over a cold.

Antibiotics are not helpful for a cold. They do not make a cold shorter or relieve symptoms. Taking antibiotics when you don’t need them can make them work less well when you need them for another illness.

Follow all directions for using medicines, especially when giving them to children. Contact your healthcare provider if you have any questions about using cold medicines safely.

Can a cold be prevented?

You can help reduce the spread of cold viruses. This can help both you and others avoid getting colds. Follow these tips:

  • Wash your hands well anytime you may have come into contact with cold viruses. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. When you can’t wash with soap and water, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

  • Don’t touch your nose, eyes, or mouth, especially after touching something that may have a cold virus on it.

  • Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze. Throw away tissues after using them.

  • Disinfect things you touch often, such as phones and keyboards.  

  • Stay home when you have a cold.

What are the possible complications of a cold virus?

Colds usually go away by themselves. But it’s not unusual to get another type of infection while you have a cold. These can include:

  • Sinus infection

  • Lung infection, such as bronchitis or pneumonia

  • Ear infection

If you have asthma or chronic bronchitis, a cold can make your condition worse.


When should I call my healthcare provider?

Call your healthcare provider right away if you have any of these:

  • Fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as directed

  • Cough, chest pain, or shortness of breath that gets worse

  • Symptoms don’t get better or get worse after about 10 days

  • Headache, sleepiness, or confusion that gets worse