What are colds?

Colds are an infection of the head and chest caused by a virus. They are a type of upper respiratory infection (URI). They can affect your nose, throat, sinuses, eyes, and ears. A cold can also affect the tube that connects your middle ear and throat, as well as your windpipe, voice box, and the airways in your lungs.

What is the cause?

Over 200 different viruses can cause colds. The infection spreads when viruses are passed to others by sneezing, coughing, or touching. You may also become infected by handling objects that were touched by someone with a cold. Some of the cold viruses live up to 3 hours on the skin and on objects, such as doorknobs or telephones.

You are more likely to get a cold if:

  • You are stressed.
  • You are tired.
  • You do not eat a healthy diet.
  • You are a smoker or are exposed to secondhand smoke.
  • You are living or working in crowded conditions.
  • You don’t wash your hands often.

People tend to get fewer colds as they get older because they have already had many colds and their immune system is able to fight off some of the viruses that can cause colds.

What are the symptoms?

You usually start having cold symptoms 1 to 3 days after contact with a cold virus. Symptoms may include:

  • Scratchy or sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Cough
  • Watery eyes
  • Ears that feel stuffy or blocked
  • Slight fever (99 to 100°F, or 37.2 to 37.8°C)
  • Feeling tired
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite

Cold and flu symptoms are similar. The difference is that when you have the flu, the symptoms start within a few hours. The symptoms of a cold develop more slowly.

How are they treated?

Most of the time you don’t need to see your healthcare provider for treatment. There are no medicines that cure a cold. Medicines that you can buy at most drugstores can help relieve your symptoms. You can:

  • Get lots of rest.
  • Drink extra fluids, such as water, fruit juice, and tea.
  • Use a humidifier to put more moisture in the air. Avoid steam vaporizers because they can cause burns. Be sure to keep the humidifier clean, as recommended in the manufacturer’s instructions. It’s important to keep bacteria and mold from growing in the water container.
  • Take nonprescription medicine, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen to treat pain and fever. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, you should not take these medicines for more than 10 days.
    • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age.
    • Acetaminophen may cause liver damage or other problems. Unless recommended by your provider, don’t take more than 3000 milligrams (mg) in 24 hours. To make sure you don’t take too much, check other medicines you take to see if they also contain acetaminophen. Ask your provider if you need to avoid drinking alcohol while taking this medicine.
  • Decongestants pills or nasal spray may reduce swelling in your nose and sinuses and lessen the amount of mucus. Use decongestants as directed. If you are using a nonprescription nasal-spray decongestant, generally you should not use it for more than 3 days. After 3 days it may make your symptoms worse. Ask your healthcare provider if it is OK for you to use a nasal spray decongestant longer than this.
  • Use cough drops, pain relievers, or salt water gargles for a sore throat. You can make a salt water gargle with 1 teaspoon table salt in 1 cup (8 ounces) of warm water.
  • You can buy many different medicines for coughs without a prescription. However, there is no proof that they will actually help your cough. Cough medicines may cause harm to young children, but they are generally safe for older children and adults.
    • If you need relief from a dry, hacking cough, choose a medicine labeled “cough suppressant.” A cough suppressant may help you cough less and sleep better. Cough medicines with the initials DM in the name contain the suppressant drug called dextromethorphan.
    • If you need to loosen mucus, choose a medicine labeled “expectorant.” Expectorants may help keep your mucus thin and bring it up from the lungs when you cough. This may relieve chest congestion and make it easier to breathe. The drug used most often as an expectorant is guaifenesin.
    • Do not give a child under age 4 any cough and cold medicines unless you have instructions from your healthcare provider. Children over 6 years of age may be given cough drops or hard candies to relieve a sore throat or cough.
  • If you are pregnant, check first with your healthcare provider before taking any cold or cough medicines.

Colds usually last 1 to 2 weeks. Contact your healthcare provider if you have new or worsening symptoms or your symptoms last longer than 2 weeks.

How can I help prevent colds?

If you are sick, you can help protect others if you:

  • Don’t go to work or school. Avoid contact with other people except to get medical care.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it, and then wash your hands. If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve instead of your hands.
  • Clean your hands often with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand cleaner, especially after using tissues or coughing or sneezing into your hands.

To lower your risk of catching a cold:

  • Wash your hands often and especially after using the restroom, coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose. Also wash your hands before eating or touching your eyes.
  • Stay at least 6 feet away from people who are sick, if you can.
  • Keep surfaces clean–especially bedside tables, surfaces in the bathroom, and toys for children. Some viruses and bacteria can live 2 hours or more on surfaces like cafeteria tables, doorknobs, and desks. Wipe them down with a household disinfectant according to directions on the label.
  • Take care of your health. Try to get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Eat a healthy diet and try to keep a healthy weight. If you smoke, try to quit. If you want to drink alcohol, ask your healthcare provider how much is safe for you to drink. Learn ways to manage stress. Exercise according to your healthcare provider’s instructions.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-10-21
Last reviewed: 2014-09-04
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

Patient Portal

Our Patient Portal provides safe and secure online access to better communicate with your Tufts Medical Center Community Care doctor. This easy-to-use web tool is a convenient way to book appointments, request referrals, renew prescriptions, view medical records/test results and communicate with your healthcare provider from the privacy of your own computer.


Your privacy is important to us. Learn more about ourwebsite privacy policy. X