The common cold, also called an acute upper respiratory tract infection (URI), is an infection of airways of the nose, throat, upper windpipe, and ears.
People in the United States have 1 billion colds yearly. They’re most common in children, who usually have 6 to 10 colds yearly. Adults average two to four. Women, especially 20 to 30 years old, have more colds than men. People older than 60 average less than one cold a year.
More than 200 different viruses cause colds. The ones called rhinoviruses cause about one third of adult colds. Coronaviruses cause a large percentage of adult colds. Causes of 30% to 50% of adult colds aren’t clear. Colds are most common in winter, when viruses spread easily among people indoors.
Being very tired or stressed (weakened immune system) and having allergies can increase chances of getting a cold.
Symptoms usually start 2 to 3 days after infection and last 2 to 14 days. Most are in the nose, throat, and ears and include sore throat, dry cough, low fever, watery eyes, hoarse voice, and stuffy, runny nose. Sneezing, headache, no appetite, and feeling tired are others.
There are no specific blood tests or x-rays needed to diagnose the common cold. Seeing a health care provider isn’t needed for a cold. Symptoms that are severe or last more than a week might need tests to check for strep throat or sinus infection that can mimic the common cold.
Only symptoms are treated, by bed rest, fluids (water, fruit juice, tea, carbonated beverages), gargling with warm saltwater, and use of acetaminophen for headache or fever. Eat a regular diet.
Over-the-counter cold remedies (decongestants, cough suppressants) may relieve symptoms but won’t prevent, cure, or shorten colds. Most also have side effects. Over-the-counter antihistamines may help a runny nose and watery eyes.
Sometimes people may get a bacterial infection following the cold that the health care provider will need to treat.
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