The Common Cold

The common cold is a viral upper respiratory tract infection. The common cold makes many kids miss school and adults work from home. It is usually harmless and resolves within 5-7 days. The common cold is the most common viral infection in the word. It is contagious and occurs mostly during the winter and rainy months. The economic impact due to missed days at school and work due to this self-limited disease is enormous.

What are the symptoms?

Common cold produces the following symptoms and signs after infecting

  1. Runny nose
  2. Sore throat
  3. Cough
  4. Nose block
  5. Sneezing
  6. Headache
  7. Tiredness

what are the causes?

Rhinoviruses cause about 50-70% of cases of common cold. Other viruses which may be involved are

  1. Respiratory syncytial viruses
  2. Adenoviruses
  3. Parainfluenza viruses
  4. Coronaviruses

Flu, which also produces similar complaints, is caused by Influenza virus and is not same as the common cold.

Sneezing due to common cold
Woman sneezing with a napkin


Yes, it is contagious. The common cold spreads when a healthy person comes in direct contact with the secretions from an infected person. When a sufferer sneezes or coughs and the secretions become air borne. A normal person inhales the air and develops the infection. This is the principle behind droplet infection.

The virus survives for long time in frequently touched surfaces like door knobs, telephones, remotes, fridge handles, toys, etc. After touching these surfaces, if you touch your face or nose, you may get the virus.

There may be a gap of few days after getting infected before you start showing symptoms. This is the incubation period for the virus. During this period the virus divides inside the body and spreads to various areas. The chances of spreading the virus is maximum in the first few days after you start showing symptoms. But the risk of spreading is there throughout the course of infection. Being a self limited disease, the body overcomes the virus with good immunity in a weeks time.

What are the risk factors?

The three factors which play the most important role are age, immunity and season.

  1. Age: Children and infants are at increased risk. Their immune system is in developing stages. With repeated infections their immunity develops.
  2. Immunity problems: Some may have decreased immunity due to diabetes, cancer, HIV or other diseases. They have a higher risk of acquiring the cold virus.
  3. Season variations: The disease is more frequent during the winter and cold months in the north and rainy seasons in developing countries like India.

what role does weather play in common cold?

During cold months people stay indoors near to each other. There is close contact among kids in day care centers. This facilitates easy spread. Low humidity in winter months dries up the secretions in nose and lower airways. These secretions have antiviral properties. This increases the susceptibility.

However, in rainy seasons in developing countries, children and adults get wet in rains and do not dry themselves properly. This coupled with below optimum socioeconomic conditions increases the transmission of viruses causing common cold.


Prevention can be achieved in two ways. The first, by protecting yourself from acquiring the virus. And second, by protecting others from getting the virus from you.

Wash hands with soap to prevent common cold
Man washing hands with soap and water
Wear mask to prevent common cold
Girl wearing mask for protecting herself and others

Preventive measures against acquiring common cold are directed at breaking the chain or stop the transmission of virus. The main steps in protecting oneself are to

  1. Wash hands regularly. Follow proper hand washing techniques. Keep a good soap or liquid soap handy at your wash basin. If you are unable to wash regularly, use a alcohol based hand-rub. Click here for details on proper hand washing techniques.
  2. Avoid touching face. Do not touch your face, eyes, nose and mouth unnecessarily. When you touch these you accidentally introduce germs into these. The germs are present in a lot of commonly touched surfaces.
  3. Keep social distances. Stay away from people who are sick. Maintaining social distancing in your life routinely helps break the chain. The Japanese practice social distancing even when there is no scare of an epidemic.
  4. Do not share your personal belongings with others, especially those who may be suffering from common cold.
  5. Educate your child about social distancing, proper hand washing and keeping himself hygienic.

In addition to protecting yourself from acquiring an infection, you must also take care that an infection doesn’t spread from you to others. Let’s see how we can achieve that-

  1. Wear a mask if you are having a flu or cold.
  2. Wash your hands regularly. Also disinfect surfaces which you may have touched frequently in your house.
  3. While coughing or sneezing you a disposable napkin or do into your elbow.
  4. Do not share your personal belongings with others.

when to go to a doctor? which doctor to go?

If you or your child develop any of the following, it may be time to get a consult-

  1. High fever
  2. Cough with breathing difficulty
  3. Chills and body ache
  4. Neck stiffness
  5. Chest pain / Earache
  6. Vomiting

These may be symptoms of flu which is more severe than a common cold. You will have to check with a specialist doctor when you have any of these. The doctors who can help you in this situation are ENT specialists, Pediatricians, General Practitioners and Emergency physicians. If you would like get a consult from us please click here. The common cold is one of the most frequent complaint that patients come to us for. In some patients it might be the flu presenting the same symptoms. Sometimes, the cold may cause complications which need prompt medical attention. We shall discuss about it soon.


Although there is no medicine to get rid of the virus, supportive treatment ensures the person is comfortable. Supportive treatment means to control fever, pain, nose block and scratchy throat. Nasal and systemic decongestants help remove block and ease in breathing. If there is excess mucus it can be lightened making expectoration easier. Lozenges can help soothe the throat. If there is any bacterial infection added to the cold we suggest antibiotics.

Flu shot against influenza

Antibiotics are effective bacteria and not against virus. Flu shots are available against influenza virus. But because the virus keeps changing its DNA a different shot is needed every year.

are there home remedies for the common cold?

Definitely yes! You do not have to rush to your doctor every time you get a common cold. These are self limiting. During such an episode, keep yourself hydrated and drink plenty of warm fluids. Avoid smoke, dust and pollution. Wear a mask while venturing outside. Traditional Indian medicine and Ayurvedic medicines can be helpful. Maintain a healthy lifestyle generally and educate your children the importance of nutritious food and exercise.


Normally, the common cold is self limited. When you have a good immunity the condition resolves within 5-7 days. Those who have reduced immunity or who smoke may have a slightly longer course of the virus. They may frequently need medical attention. In a few, the virus can cause complications like sinusitis, ear infection, chest infection, pneumonia and bronchitis. The development of any of these will be associated with specific symptoms. You will be able to figure out when the common cold progresses to something serious.

We hope this article helps clear a lot of your doubts regarding the common cold. Though both diseases cause similar symptoms, the common cold and flu are different. Flu causes more discomfort. Get in touch with us whenever you need support. Do not start on medicines on your own, especially if the patient is a small child. For comments and feedback please write to us at

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