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Common Cold - Causes, Symptoms, Preventions and Treatment

The cold, one of the most common upper respiratory infections, is an illness that majorly affects an individual’s nose and throat. Although people of any age group can get infected with cold and cough, young children and elderly people can get the infection more often. Other than this, people with a weak immune system are also at a higher risk of catching a cold and cough. Since colds are highly contagious infections, they spread very easily from one person to another. When a healthy individual comes into contact with someone who is already infected, the virus reaches one of the mucous membranes and makes the person infected.

After catching a cold infection, one can remain contagious for up to two weeks. However, an individual is most contagious when the symptoms are at their peak. Generally, it takes 7–10 days to recover from this infection, but it can vary depending on the severity of symptoms like cold, cough, sore throat, etc. It can also take a little longer to recover for people with unhealthy lifestyle habits.


There are more than 200 different types of viruses that can cause a cold, but rhinovirus is the most common cause of cough and colds. Generally, this virus enters the human body through the mouth, eyes, or nose and can cause a severe cold. It can spread from one person to another after coming into direct contact or through the air. When a person who already has a cold and cough with a runny nose sneezes or talks, small droplets spread in the air. These droplets contain the virus and can infect whoever comes into contact. Other than this, it also spreads when a healthy individual touches a surface with the virus on it.


The duration between catching an infection and experiencing the symptoms is called the incubation period. Generally, the incubation period for a common cold can range between 12 hours and three days. Generally, an individual experiences the symptoms of a cold infection in different stages. These symptoms start worsening as the infection progresses. There are three different stages of the common cold, including early, active, and late.

Stage 1: Early (Days 1 to 3)

Since the incubation period can vary from one person to another, the symptoms experienced at this stage can also differ. However, most people start developing a few symptoms on day 3 of their exposure to the virus. For some people, it starts with a small tickle in their throat, while others have a fever as their first symptom. Here are a few common ones that an individual may experience during this stage:

  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Nasal congestion
  • Cough
  • Weak and scratchy voice

Stage 2: Active (Days 4 to 7)

In this stage, one may start feeling even worse, as this is the time when cold symptoms are at their peak. Some of the common symptoms an individual experiences at this stage include:

  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Watery eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Weakness
  • Fever

Stage 3: Late (Days 8 to 10)

This is the last and final stage of a cold infection. This is the time when almost all the symptoms start getting better. Usually, one starts feeling much better at this point, but some people develop a persistent cough that may last up to several weeks.

The symptoms of colds in infants and young children may be different. Some of the common ones include:

  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • High fever
  • Sudden loss of appetite
  • Increased drooling
  • Sore throat
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Irritability
  • Slightly swollen glands
  • Persistent cough


Cold is not a condition that can be completely eliminated by some kind of vaccination. But there are a few things that can be done to avoid the spread of this virus and prevent infections, such as:

  • Washing Hands: A cold is an infection that spreads quickly through the air and person-to-person contact. A healthy individual gets this infection when he or she comes into contact with an infected person or any surface with the virus. To avoid the spread of this virus, it is important to wash hands properly with soap and clean water. If soap and water aren't available, one can also use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser before touching their mouth, nose, and eyes.


  • Maintaining Hygiene: Although colds are more common in the monsoon season, it is important to maintain good hygiene throughout the year. It includes cleaning and disinfecting surfaces like doorknobs, light switches, bathroom countertops, etc. often.

Here are a few more precautionary steps one needs to take in order to avoid colds and other such infections:

  • It is always recommended to cover the mouth and nose with a tissue while coughing or sneezing and wash hands immediately after that.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are already suffering from a cold or any other upper respiratory infection. It includes not shaking hands or sharing the same utensils without proper cleaning.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with dirty hands.

When to See a Doctor?

A common cold can get better in a few days with over-the-counter medication. But in certain cases, it is important to seek medical care. Colds can have similar symptoms to several other diseases and infections. Sometimes, people associate things like body ache, cough, and runny nose with the common cold, but they can be either dengue symptoms or viral fever symptoms

Here are a few warning signs that indicate some complications, and one should immediately visit the doctor after experiencing these:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Dehydration
  • High-grade fever lasting longer than 3-4 days
  • No improvement in other symptoms after 8-10 days

Cold and Cough Treatment 

In most cases, cold and cough can get better with over-the-counter medication, but if the symptoms last more than 4-5 days, it is important to seek help from a professional healthcare provider. Usually, a physical exam is enough, but sometimes the doctor may suggest a few blood tests as well. Chest X-rays can also be helpful in ruling out conditions such as bronchitis or pneumonia.

Although the treatment for cold and cough can vary depending on the severity of the infection, there are some common medicines the doctor may suggest:

  • Pain relievers for headaches and body aches
  • Decongestants for cough and chest congestion
  • Antihistamines to stop sneezing and runny nose
  • Cough suppressants to reduce cough
  • Expectorants to thin and loosen mucus

Other than this, there are a few simple things one can do to get instant relief, such as:

  • Getting plenty of rest
  • Drinking fluids to keep the body hydrated
  • Using a clean humidifier or vaporizer
  • Using saline nasal spray or drops
  • Taking a hot shower
  • Using lozenges or cough drops to relieve throat pain
  • Gargling with warm salt water
  • Using a rubber suction bulb to clear mucus (for kids)

Risk Factors

Here are a few factors that put an individual at a higher risk of catching a cold infection:

  • Age: Despite being an equally common disease in adults as well, the cold usually targets infants and young children. Since they cannot take adequate precautions, they are always at a greater risk.
  • Immunity: There is no denying the fact that individuals with a weakened immune system can catch a cold and several other infections more often.
  • Lifestyle Habits: People who don’t take a proper diet or have unhealthy habits such as smoking are always at a higher risk. In addition to this, passive smokers (who come into direct contact with smokers) can also get a cold infection easily.


Usually, a cold can take 7-10 days to clear up in adults, and children may take as long as 2 weeks to recover completely. Sometimes, it can cause a number of complications if the symptoms get too severe. Some of the common complications caused by a cold include:

  • Middle Ear Infection: This is a condition in which fluids start building up in the space behind the eardrum. It may be caused by a virus or bacteria and can lead to swelling in that area. Common signs of a middle ear infection include sharp pain in the ear combined with a high-grade fever.
  • Asthma: A persistent cough and chest congestion are two of the most common symptoms of a cold infection. When individuals who are already dealing with asthma catch a cold, this can trigger wheezing, making this condition even worse.
  • Sinusitis: When a common cold lasts longer than a week, it can often lead to swelling and pain in the sinuses (small air-filled spaces in the skull above the eyes and around the nose). When this swelling goes beyond a certain level, it can also turn into sinusitis.

Other than the ones mentioned above, a common cold can cause several other complications. When left unattended for a long time, it can affect the lungs leading to conditions like pneumonia or bronchitis. Especially in infants, cough and cold can worsen, leading to pneumonia-like symptoms. People with a weak immune system also have an increased risk of these complications as their body struggles to fight off the virus, prolonging the infection.

The Bottom Line

Colds are very common in people of every age, but they can be quite uncomfortable. Especially in elderly people and children, it can cause severe cough and congestion in the chest, along with several other complications. There is no specific treatment that can instantly cure a cold, as this infection has to run its course until it is gone completely. However, with the help of proper medication and rest, any kind of discomfort can be avoided. Other than this, home remedies like salt gargles, steam baths, etc. can also ease the symptoms.

Sometimes, a common cold can be mistaken for other infections such as flu, dengue, etc. If one experiences severe symptoms that don’t ease within a week, it is important to consult a doctor immediately. The doctor may suggest a few blood tests to check for the root cause of the problem. Dr. B. Lal Clinical Lab is a leading pathology lab in Jaipur that offers a wide range of lab tests with quick home sample collection facilities.

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