common cold

(redirected from Cold virus)
Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus, Encyclopedia.

Common Cold



The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory system, including the nose, throat, sinuses, eustachian tubes, trachea, larynx, and bronchial tubes. Although more than 200 different viruses can cause a cold, 30-50% are caused by a group known as rhinoviruses. Almost all colds clear up in less than two weeks without complications.


Colds, sometimes called rhinovirus or coronavirus infections, are the most common illness to strike any part of the body. It is estimated that the average person has more than 50 colds during a lifetime. Anyone can get a cold, although pre-school and grade school children catch them more frequently than adolescents and adults. Repeated exposure to viruses causing colds creates partial immunity.
Although most colds resolve on their own without complications, they are a leading cause of visits to the doctor and of time lost from work and school. Treating symptoms of the common cold has given rise to a multi-million dollar industry in over-the-counter medications.
Cold season in the United States begins in early autumn and extends through early spring. Although it is not true that getting wet or being in a draft causes a cold (a person has to come in contact with the virus to catch a cold), certain conditions may lead to increased susceptibility. These include:
  • fatigue and overwork
  • emotional stress
  • poor nutrition
  • smoking
  • living or working in crowded conditions
Colds make the upper respiratory system less resistant to bacterial infection. Secondary bacterial infection may lead to middle ear infection, bronchitis, pneumonia, sinus infection, or strep throat. People with chronic lung disease, asthma, diabetes, or a weakened immune system are more likely to develop these complications.

Causes and symptoms

Colds are caused by more than 200 different viruses. The most common groups are rhinoviruses and coronaviruses. Different groups of viruses are more infectious at different seasons of the year, but knowing the exact virus causing the cold is not important in treatment.
People with colds are contagious during the first two to four days of the infection. Colds pass from person to person in several ways. When an infected person coughs, sneezes, or speaks, tiny fluid droplets containing the virus are expelled. If these are breathed in by other people, the virus may establish itself in their noses and airways.
Colds may also be passed through direct contact. If a person with a cold touches his runny nose or watery eyes, then shakes hands with another person some of the virus is transferred to the uninfected person. If that person then touches his mouth, nose, or eyes, the virus is transferred to an environment where it can reproduce and cause a cold.
Cold Remedies
Symptoms Side-effects
Antihistamines Congestion
Itchy eyes
Runny nose
Stuffy nose
Dry mouth and eyes
Decongestants Congestion
Stuffy nose
Rapid heart beat
Finally, cold viruses can be spread through inanimate objects (door knobs, telephones, toys) that become contaminated with the virus. This is a common method of transmission in child care centers. If a child with a cold touches her runny nose, then plays with a toy, some of the virus may be transferred to the toy. When another child plays with the toy a short time later, he may pick up some of the virus on his hands. The second child then touches his contaminated hands to his eyes, nose, or mouth and transfers some of the cold virus to himself.
Once acquired, the cold virus attaches itself to the lining of the nasal passages and sinuses. This causes the infected cells to release a chemical called histamine. Histamine increases the blood flow to the infected cells, causing swelling, congestion, and increased mucus production. Within one to three days the infected person begins to show cold symptoms.
The first cold symptoms are a tickle in the throat, runny nose, and sneezing. The initial discharge from the nose is clear and thin. Later it changes to a thick yellow or greenish discharge. Most adults do not develop a fever when they catch a cold. Young children may develop a low fever of up to 102°F (38.9°C).
In addition to a runny nose and fever, signs of a cold include coughing, sneezing, nasal congestion, headache, muscle ache, chills, sore throat, hoarseness, watery eyes, tiredness, and lack of appetite. The cough that accompanies a cold is usually intermittent and dry.
Most people begin to feel better four to five days after their cold symptoms become noticeable. All symptoms are generally gone within ten days, except for a dry cough that may linger for up to three weeks.
Colds make people more susceptible to bacterial infections such as strep throat, middle ear infections, and sinus infections. A person whose cold does not begin to improve within a week; or who experiences chest pain, fever for more than a few days, difficulty breathing, bluish lips or fingernails, a cough that brings up greenish-yellow or grayish sputum, skin rash, swollen glands, or whitish spots on the tonsils or throat should consult a doctor to see if he or she has acquired a secondary bacterial infection that needs to be treated with an antibiotic.
People who have emphysema, chronic lung disease, diabetes, or a weakened immune system—either from diseases such as AIDS or leukemia, or as the result of medications, (corticosteroids, chemotherapy drugs)—should consult their doctor if they get a cold. People with these health problems are more likely to get a secondary infection.


Colds are diagnosed by observing a person's symptoms. There are no laboratory tests readily available to detect the cold virus. However, a doctor may do a throat culture or blood test to rule out a secondary infection.
Influenza is sometimes confused with a cold, but flu causes much more severe symptoms and generally a fever. Allergies to molds or pollens also can make the nose run. Allergies are usually more persistent than the common cold. An allergist can do tests to determine if the cold-like symptoms are being caused by an allergic reaction. Also, some people get a runny nose when they go outside in winter and breathe cold air. This type of runny nose is not a symptom of a cold.


There are no medicines that will cure the common cold. Given time, the body's immune system will make antibodies to fight the infection, and the cold will be resolved without any intervention. Antibiotics are useless against a cold. However, a great deal of money is spent by pharmaceutical companies in the United States promoting products designed to relieve cold symptoms. These products usually contain antihistamines, decongestants, and/or pain relievers.
Antihistamines block the action of the chemical histamine that is produced when the cold virus invades the cells lining the nasal passages. Histamine increases blood flow and causes the cells to swell. Antihistamines are taken to relieve the symptoms of sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes, and congestion. Side effects are dry mouth and drowsiness, especially with the first few doses. Antihistamines should not be taken by people who are driving or operating dangerous equipment. Some people have allergic reactions to antihistamines. Common over-the-counter antihistamines include Chlor-Trimeton, Dimetapp, Tavist, and Actifed. The generic name for two common antihistamines are chlorpheniramine and diphenhydramine.
Decongestants work to constrict the blood flow to the vessels in the nose. This can shrink the tissue, reduce congestion, and open inflamed nasal passages, making breathing easier. Decongestants can make people feel jittery or keep them from sleeping. They should not be used by people with heart disease, high blood pressure, or glaucoma. Some common decongestants are Neo-Synepherine, Novafed, and Sudafed. The generic names of common decongestants include phenylephrine, phenylpropanolamine, pseudoephedrine, and in nasal sprays naphazoline, oxymetazoline and xylometazoline.
Many over-the-counter medications are combinations of both antihistamines and decongestants; an ache and pain reliever, such as acetaminophen (Datril, Tylenol, Panadol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Nuprin, Motrin, Medipren); and a cough suppressant (dextromethorphan). Common combination medications include Tylenol Cold and Flu, Triaminic, Sudafed Plus, and Tavist D. Aspirin should not be given to children with a cold because of its association with a risk of Reye's syndrome, a serious disease.
Nasal sprays and nose drops are other products promoted for reducing nasal congestion. These usually contain a decongestant, but the decongestant can act more quickly and strongly than ones found in pills or liquids because it is applied directly in the nose. Congestion returns after a few hours.
People can become dependent on nasal sprays and nose drops. If used for a long time, users may suffer withdrawal symptoms when these products are discontinued. Nasal sprays and nose drops should not be used for more than a few days. The label lists recommendations on length and frequency of use.
Scientists reported in 2004 the possibility of a new oral drug for use in relieving common cold symptoms. Called pleconaril, it inhibited viral replication in at least 90% of rhinoviruses if taken within 24 hours of onset.
People react differently to different cold medications and may find some more helpful than others. A medication may be effective initially, then lose some of its effectiveness. Children sometimes react differently than adults. Over-the-counter cold remedies should not be given to infants without consulting a doctor first.
Care should be taken not to exceed the recommended dosages, especially when combination medications or nasal sprays are taken. Individuals should determine whether they wish to use any of these drugs. None of them shorten or cure a cold. At best they help a person feel more comfortable. People who are confused about the drugs in any over-the-counter cold remedies should ask their pharmacist for an explanation.
In addition to the optional use of over the counter cold remedies, there are some self-care steps that people can take to ease their discomfort. These include:
  • drinking plenty of fluids, but avoiding acidic juices, which may irritate the throat
  • gargling with warm salt water—made by adding one teaspoon of salt to 8 oz of water—for a sore throat
  • not smoking
  • getting plenty of rest
  • using a cool-mist room humidifier to ease congestion and sore throat
  • rubbing Vaseline or other lubricant under the nose to prevent irritation from frequent nose blowing
  • for babies too young to blow their noses, the mucus should be suctioned gently with an infant nasal aspirator. It may be necessary to soften the mucus first with a few drops of salt water.

Alternative treatment

Alternative practitioners emphasize that people get colds because their immune systems are weak. They point out that everyone is exposed to cold viruses, but not everyone gets every cold. The difference seems to be in the ability of the immune system to fight infection. Prevention focuses on strengthening the immune system by eating a healthy diet low in sugars and high in fresh fruits and vegetables, practicing meditation to reduce stress, and getting regular moderate exercise.
Once cold symptoms appear, some naturopathic practitioners believe the symptoms should be allowed to run their course without interference. Others suggest the following:
  • Inhaling a steaming mixture of lemon oil, thyme oil, eucalyptus, and tea tree oil (Melaleuca spp.). (Aromatherapy)
  • Gargling with a mixture of water, salt, and turmeric powder or astringents such as alum, sumac, sage, and bayberry to ease a sore throat. (Ayurvedic medicine)
  • Taking coneflower or goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis). Other useful herbs to reduce symptoms include yarrow (Achillea millefolium), eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis), garlic (Allium sativum), and onions (Allium cepa). (Herbal)
  • Microdoses of Viscue album, Natrum muriaticum, Allium cepa, or Nux vomica. (Homeopathy)
  • Taking yin chiao (sometimes transliterated as yinquiao) tablets that contain honeysuckle and forsythia when symptoms appear. Natural herb loquat syrup for cough and sinus congestion and Chinese ephedra (ma-huang) for runny nose. (Chinese traditional medicine)
  • The use of zinc lozenges every two hours along with high doses of vitamin C is suggested. Some practitioners also suggest eliminating dairy products for the duration of the cold. (Nutritional therapy).
The use of zinc lozenges may be moving toward acceptance by practitioners of traditional medicine. In 1996 the Cleveland Clinic tested zinc gluconate lozenges and found using zinc in the first 24 hours after cold symptoms occurred shortened the duration of symptoms. The mechanism by which zinc worked was not clear, but additional studies are underway.
At one time, the herb (Echinacea spp.) was touted as a remedy to relieve cold symptoms. However, a study published in 2004 reported that the herb failed to relieve cold symptoms in 400 children taking it and caused skin rashes in some children.


Given time, the body will make antibodies to cure itself of a cold. Most colds last a week to 10 days. Most people start feeling better within four or five days. Occasionally a cold will lead to a secondary bacterial infection that causes strep throat, bronchitis, pneumonia, sinus infection, or a middle ear infection. These conditions usually clear up rapidly when treated with an antibiotic.


It is not possible to prevent colds because the viruses that cause colds are common and highly infectious. However, there are some steps individuals can take to reduce their spread. These include:
  • washing hands well and frequently, especially after touching the nose or before handling food
  • covering the mouth and nose when sneezing
  • disposing of used tissues properly
  • avoiding close contact with someone who has a cold during the first two to four days of their infection
  • not sharing food, eating utensils, or cups with anyone
  • avoiding crowded places where cold germs can spread
  • eating a healthy diet and getting adequate sleep



"Study: Echinacea Is Ineffective." Chain Drug Review February 16, 2004: 25.
Zepf, Bill. "Pleconaril for Treatment of the Common Cold?" American Family Physician February 1, 2004: 703.

Key terms

Bronchial tubes — The major airways to the lungs and their main branches.
Coronavirus — a genus of viruses that cause respiratory disease and gastroenteritis.
Corticosteroids — A group of hormones produced naturally by the adrenal gland or manufactured synthetically. They are often used to treat inflammation. Examples include cortisone and prednisone.
Eustachian tube — A thin tube between the middle ear and the pharynx. Its purpose is to equalize pressure on either side of the ear drum.
Rhinovirus — A virus that infects the upper respiratory system and causes the common cold.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

common cold

an acute and highly contagious virus infection of the upper respiratory tract. Cold viruses are resistant to present antibiotics, and there is currently no really effective preventive vaccine that will work against them in all situations for all people. Having had a cold confers only a brief immunity. Called also acute rhinitis.
Symptoms. All colds are not identical, because of different causative agents and individual reactions. Usually the common cold starts with a runny nose, sneezing, a stuffy feeling in the head, slight headache, watering of the eyes, general aching and listlessness, inability to concentrate, and perhaps a slight fever. The affected membranes swell until the nasal passages are blocked. Often the inflammation spreads to the throat, causing sore throat and cough.

A cold usually begins to subside after several days. The nasal discharge lessens, the membranous swelling decreases and the patient is able to breathe through the nose again. The average cold lasts from 7 to 14 days. If at any stage the cold shows signs of getting worse—for example, if there are prolonged chills, fever above 39.5° C (103° F), aches in the chest, ears, or face, shortness of breath, coughing up of blood-streaked or rust-colored mucus, or persistent hoarseness—then a health care provider should be consulted.
Treatment. To help avoid complications of all kinds, it is best to take a cold seriously from the beginning. Rest and isolation at the first signs will speed recovery and prevent the passing on of the cold to others. Extra hours of rest or sleep at night are important. It is important to keep warm and avoid changing temperatures as much as possible and to drink plenty of liquids and eat in moderation. The nose should be blown gently, to avoid forcing the infection into the sinuses and ears. Aspirin brings the quickest and safest relief for adults. Antibiotics are not helpful for colds. They may be prescribed if complications occur.

Sinusitis may occur when the infection spreads and causes inflammation of the membranes of the paranasal sinuses. The infection may also affect the membranes of the middle ear. Other complications may occur if the infection enters the lower respiratory system; these include laryngitis, bronchitis, and pneumonia.
Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, Seventh Edition. © 2003 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.

common cold

See cold.
The American Heritage® Medical Dictionary Copyright © 2007, 2004 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

common cold

Acute nasopharyngitis Infectious disease A popular term for a viral URI, 2º to inflammation of the nasal mucosa–rhinitis and coryza, which is usually spread by aerosol, and caused by any of a number of viruses Agents Rhinovirus has 111 serotypes,–caused 15-40% of CCs, coronavirus, 10-20%; viral causes of CC include influenza A, B, C, parainfluenza, RSV, adenovirus, rarely coxsackie and enterovirus; group A β-hemolytic streptococci cause 2-10% of CCs; in 30-50% no etiologic agent is identified Immunity Because the CC is due to many differnt viruses, the body never builds up resistance–immunity to all of them, and CCs are a common and recurring problem Frequency Preschool children ±9 CCs/yr; kindergarten ±12 colds/yr; adolescents and adults, ± 7 colds/yr Old wives tale debunked Exposure to cold weather probably has no effect on the spread of CCs Incidence The CC affects 41/100 population/yr–US; it results in 23 million days of lost work, and a loss of $12 billion Clinical Influenza-like syndrome Management Zinc gluconate lozenges may ↓ incidence by 50% Susceptibility Psychologic stress may ↑ susceptibility to CCs
McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


1. A low temperature; the sensation produced by a temperature notably below an accustomed norm or a comfortable level.
2. Popular term for a virus infection involving the upper respiratory tract and characterized by congestion of the mucosa, watery nasal discharge, and general malaise, with a duration of 3-5 days.
See also: rhinitis
Synonym(s): common cold, frigid (1) , upper respiratory infection, upper respiratory tract infection.
Medical Dictionary for the Health Professions and Nursing © Farlex 2012

common cold

Collins Dictionary of Medicine © Robert M. Youngson 2004, 2005

Patient discussion about common cold

Q. Common cold but dreadful. I am suffering from a dreadful common cold. As I write: believe me, I long to have done with it. I am not enjoying it in the least. I fear however that I am already too old to see the day when the common cold becomes history. I tried the simple first aid tablets but no use. Could you use this session to help me out?

A. chicken soup :) the best cure!
you can try fresh ginger tea - it really make it easier..opens up the sinuses, drys up the mucous.

Q. My 5 years boy is coughing for 2 weeks. What can be the problem? 5 years boy is coughing for 2 weeks. In the beginning he had a simple cold, a runny nose and fever but after 3 days those symptoms were gone and now he just the this irritating cough. What can be the problem?

A. Residual cough can be a normal varient of the common cold but it can also be a sign for a more complicated disease. to distinguish between those situations you need to tell us if your boy has shortness of breath and fever or not. if not, its probably a residual part of the cold but if he does, maybe he didn't have a common cold but something more serious like pneumonia.

Q. what is the best way to treat cold ?

A. Treat it's symptoms. Since the common cold is caused mainly by viruses, and is usually a self-limiting disease, there's usually no role for specific treatment. Analgesics, antipyretics and anticongestants usually do the job. Some of these are OTC and some require prescription. Remember to consult a doctor before taking any drug.

And of course the best treatment is prevention: wash your hands after touching coming in contact with sick person, before touching your eyes, eating, after sneezing or coughing etc.

You may read more here:

More discussions about common cold
This content is provided by iMedix and is subject to iMedix Terms. The Questions and Answers are not endorsed or recommended and are made available by patients, not doctors.
References in periodicals archive ?
For the study, the team tested 152 study participants' nasal microbiomes before and after giving them the cold virus, ruling out the possibility that the virus or the resulting sickness was altering the composition of the microbiome significantly.
The researchers then sequestered volunteers in a hotel, administered the cold virus via nasal drops and monitored them for a week, collecting daily mucus samples to see if the virus had taken hold.
While getting chilled or wet is not a cause of common colds, there are factors that make you more susceptible to catching a cold virus. For example, you are more likely to catch a common cold if you are excessively fatigued, have emotional distress, or have allergies with nose and throat symptoms.
"Cytokines are protein molecules that the immune system produces when you're infected by a cold virus."
The TV remote control is a key cold virus "hotspot" in the home, say scientists.
Meanwhile, researchers at University Hospital Birmingham are currently developing a genetically-modified cold virus that could potentially be used to treat cancer in the future.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that the mutated strain of the common cold virus that killed 10 people since last May, known as Adl 4, is genetically identical in all four states where victims were identified.
Scientists at a Midland university are using a common cold virus to help kill cancer, it can be revealed today.
So when a cold virus makes its way into your mouth (usually from touching your hands to your lips or biting your nails), having well-brushed teeth and gums may mean the virus is less likely to make you sick.
They then exposed volunteers to either a cold virus or a flu virus.
A new product, Vicks First Defence Micro-gel Nasal Spray, pounds 7, forms a layer of gel at the back of the nose to trap the cold virus, disarm it and help the body flush it out.
Cough etiquette breaks the cycle Good cough etiquette will help stop a cold virus from circling around the office, school, or family.