What is a cold and why do we get them?
Streaming nose, heavy head, and a throat like a chainsaw - we’ve all had a common cold - the unavoidable winter sickness that can vary from mild sneezing to bed-ridden misery.
There’s no denying that a head cold is irritating and can make us feel really unwell yet they’re often not taken seriously. We’re often expected to work right through them. But in fact, colds are the main reason children stay off school and adults miss work.
Because the common cold is contagious and spreads easily from person to person, colds are really, well, common! Children usually have more because they don’t yet have immunity to as many cold viruses and mix freely at school. And adults who have regular contact with children tend to get them more often too.
Women are 8 times more likely than men to look after sick children and so could have more exposure to cold viruses - while at the same time having more home responsibilities that make them feel they need to work through. “So this guide is about helping you feel better as fast as possible,” says Dr. Ann from Healthily.
How do you catch a cold?
The virus can spread through droplets in the air when someone who is sick coughs, sneezes, or talks. The virus can enter your body through your mouth, eyes, or nose and infect your upper airways, and then causes inflammation inside your upper airways and gives you typical cold symptoms.
It also spreads by hand contact - when you touch or shake hands with someone who has a cold or by sharing contaminated objects, such as doorknobs, towels, toys, or phones. If you touch your eyes, nose, or mouth after contact, you could catch their cold.
Common cold facts
- medical names include upper respiratory tract infection (URTI), upper respiratory infection, or acute rhinitis.
- common names include a head cold a chest cold or the common cold.
- they’re usually harmless, but it might not feel that way when your nose is stuffed-up, and your muscles are aching
- there are more than 200 different viruses that can cause a cold. Rhinoviruses account for up to half of all colds
- symptoms vary hugely, depending on what virus is causing it and how your body reacts.
- different viruses are responsible for winter colds to summer colds.
Who is most likely to get a cold?
Anyone can catch a cold but you’re more likely to get one if:
- you’re younger – babies and young children are at greatest risk of colds and can expect to have 5 to 8 colds in a year. Children touch their faces frequently and put things in their mouths so colds spread easily. They also haven’t yet built up their immunity to the hundreds of cold viruses that circulate each year.
- you’re in contact with children - for example, you work in a daycare center or you have young kids at home.
- you have a weakened immune system –if you have an illness or take medication that weakens your immune system.
- you smoke – smoking damages your lungs and airways and also harms the immune system, making you more likely to catch a cold. You may also feel worse with it if you smoke, or are around secondhand smoke a lot.
- you’re in a place with more people – if you're around crowds for example schools, airports, planes, or nightclubs, you're more likely to be exposed to viruses that cause colds
- you’re not getting enough sleep - getting fewer sleep hours has been linked with higher chances of catching a cold. One study found that participants getting less than 7 hours of sleep were almost 3 times more likely to get a cold than those with 8 or more. A newer study has also suggested fewer hours are linked to an even higher risk.
- you’re stressed - being stressed can increase your chances of catching a cold. Read here for other ways stress can affect your body and .
- heavy physical training - while moderate physical activity can protect against getting colds, heavier training can do the opposite
Can you catch a cold from being cold?
There’s no evidence for low temperatures triggering a cold, but you are more likely to catch a cold in the colder months of fall and winter. We don’t know exactly why colds happen in the winter but some theories include:
- being indoors more when it’s cold brings people closer together, making it easier to spread
- schools are in session so colds can spread between children, who bring them home to their parents
- low humidity in the air both outdoors and inside due to central heating can dry out the inner lining of your nose and make it more susceptible to a virus
What are the symptoms of a cold?
Not everyone experiences the same cold in the same way and some people won’t get any symptoms at all, but you’ll recognize many of these classic cold symptoms:
- stuffy or runny nose
- sore or scratchy throat
- feeling unwell
- feeling tired
- a hoarse voice
When your nose runs it often starts out clear and can change after 2 to 3 days to white, yellow or green. This normal stage of a cold doesn’t mean the infection is bacterial or you need antibiotics.
Less common symptoms include:
- fever (usually low-grade)
- mildly red or watery eyes
- weakened or loss of smell or taste
- pressure feeling in your ears or face
- body aches
The symptoms are usually similar in children to those in adults.
How to tell the difference between a cold and COVID
It can be hard to know if you have a cold or COVID-19 because many of the symptoms overlap. If you’ve got access to a COVID-19 test then this should give you an answer. There are also a few small differences.
What are the stages of a cold?
In healthy adults, colds usually last between 3 and 10 days, but your symptoms can vary depending on which stage of the cold you’re in. Children can take a bit longer to recover.
In up to a quarter of adults, especially smokers, symptoms can last as long as 2 weeks. The worst day of a common cold varies but it usually falls 2-3 days after your symptoms appear, so chances are that after this you’ll start to feel better.
- Stage 1: The incubation period - the time between catching the virus to developing symptoms. It can last anywhere between 12 hours and 3 days
- Stage 2: Symptoms - start to appear and then get quickly worse over 1-3 days
- Stage 3: Remission - your symptoms get gradually better. They will usually have improved a lot by day 7
- Stage 4: Recovery - you should feel well but may have lingering symptoms for 1 to 2 weeks, and occasionally up to 3 weeks, but they should be mild. Any cough can last for 2-3 weeks
How to get rid of a cold with self-care
There’s no cure for a cold, so how can you get rid of a cold fast? Self-care and home remedies can help you feel better but so far there’s no scientifically proven way to make your cold go away faster.
To help you feel better
- get plenty of rest and sleep
- drink lots of water – if you find it hard to drink, try decaf teas, or flavored water with cucumber, lemon, lime, or berries.
- try a cool mist vaporizer or saline nasal spray to help unblock a stuffy nose
- suck on ice chips, popsicles, or lozenges to soothe your scratchy throat
- try drinks with honey to help soothe a cough (but only in those over 12 months old)
- gargle saltwater to soothe a sore throat
- sip on warm drinks to help with congestion and soothe your throat
- stop smoking at least until you feel better
Stay home if you don’t feel well enough to do your normal activities or have a high fever - this might mean taking some time off work.
The common cold: true or false
What to eat when you have a cold
You’ve probably heard the saying ‘feed a cold, starve a fever’ - but is there any truth in this? ‘Both fevers and colds can cause dehydration so drinking plenty of fluids is really important.’ says Dr. Adiele Hoffman, Healthily doctor. ‘It takes energy for your body to fight infection so good nutrition is important for both a fever and a cold. You might not feel hungry while you’re unwell, or can’t smell or taste, but try some light meals to keep up your energy levels’.
Foods and drinks you could try include:
- fruits and vegetables including berries, peppers, and broccoli for a vitamin C kick
- chicken soup has been spooned into the mouths of sick loved ones for generations but what’s the best soup for a cold? Soups packed full of veggies and energy can maximize your nutrition and get those vitamins in. Chicken soup can be warming and soothing, and some researchers say it might have anti-inflammatory properties.
- what’s the best tea for a cold? Hydration is key and warm drinks and teas can also help soothe your scratchy throat. Squeeze in fresh lemon for some extra vitamin C or add honey for its soothing effects and to give you an energy boost.
Can you sweat out a cold?
You shouldn’t make yourself sweat while you have a cold - it could dehydrate you and make you feel worse,’ says Dr. Adiele Hoffman. ‘Your body’s immune system will fight the cold virus and get rid of it by itself- and sweating won’t make this happen any quicker. You might feel a bit sweaty in the early days of a cold if you have a low grade fever but if you feel very sweaty or have a high fever see a doctor as this is unusual with a cold in adults’.
Does common cold nasal washing work?
You can buy nasal salt water rinses, sprays and drops from pharmacies which are commonly used to help a stuffy nose. The science is a bit mixed as no big trials have been done. One study showed they can improve sore throats, runny noses and nose breathing in children and an analysis of studies concluded they could be helpful overall for symptoms of a cold with no serious side effects.
Is menthol good for a cold?
Many people say menthol improves their blocked nose - this is because menthol is strong smelling and it gets through a stuffed-up nose more easily than other scents. So it creates the illusion of a clear nose when scientifically it doesn’t actually help. Be aware that some rubs containing menthol also contain camphor which can be toxic if you swallow it. It shouldn’t be used in any child under 2 and in adults only on the neck or chest and never on the face including around your nose.
How can a pharmacist help with a cold?
You can talk to a pharmacist for help finding which medications will suit your symptoms and check with them if they are suitable for you. Some shouldn’t be used during pregnancy or breastfeeding, or for young children. Others should only be used for a limited number of days so always check the packet.
You’ll find plenty of medications marketed for coughs and colds, but here are the ones that have evidence that they work:
- painkillers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help relieve pain such as a headache or sinus pain, or body aches
- antihistamines or decongestant sprays or tablets, or a combination of the two can sometimes help with cold symptoms like runny or blocked nose
- ipratropium nose sprays can help with a runny nose
Do natural remedies help with colds?
- There's some evidence that zinc lozenges can speed up recovery - but we’re still waiting to find out what dose would be best to take. An analysis of 28 trials with over 5000 patients found that cold symptoms in people taking zinc resolved an average of 2 days earlier than those not taking zinc. What’s more, it found symptoms in those taking zinc were less severe on day 3. There weren’t any serious harms but it was found to cause some minor side effects including nausea and mouth irritation.
- echinacea still doesn’t have enough clear evidence for treating or preventing colds. There have been lots of studies looking at echinacea plant extracts and colds but there is a big variation in the species, active ingredient, and dose. Studies have so far shown some conflicting results. It’s also worth knowing echinacea can interact with other medications.
- garlic isn’t backed by science - the belief that garlic helps with a cold is based on traditional use and some evidence that garlic has antimicrobial properties. So far science hasn’t found any evidence that garlic helps cure a cold.
When to see a doctor about a cold
Although it might not feel like it when you’re feeling miserable and sick, most colds are mild and will get better whether you take medication or not.
‘Although you might feel like you need something more to get better from the cold virus, you shouldn’t take antibiotics for a cold because they don’t work against viruses,’ says Dr. Adiele Hoffman, doctor, and Healthily expert. ‘And they could cause side effects that actually make you feel worse’.
If you notice some of the symptoms of COVID-19 or you think you might have it, try using our Smart Symptom Checker, or get a test for COVID-19.
Colds do vary between people so if your symptoms are unusually bad or you are concerned it could be something more than a cold, then you should see a doctor. Occasionally, the cold virus can allow other infections to enter your body and cause complications such as an ear or chest infection. So you should see a doctor if you have:
- a fever of over 102F
- a fever or other symptoms that suddenly get worse or return after they’ve gone away
- swelling or redness of your face or a pus-like discharge from your nose, or pain in your face that’s severe, or lasts longer than 3 days
- coughing up blood or a cough that gets worse after you other symptoms have gotten better
- your symptoms aren’t getting better after 10 days or a cough that’s not better after 3 weeks
- difficulty breathing or wheezing
- trouble swallowing
- bad ear pain that lasts more than 3 days or pus comes out of your ear
- a long term medical problem such as diabetes or a heart or lung conditions
- a weakened immune system
How to prevent a cold when you feel it coming?
Once the symptoms of a cold appear, there’s nothing proven to prevent it from progressing but some over-the-counter medicines and self-care can help relieve your symptoms temporarily - so start taking care of yourself as soon as you feel it coming on.
There are things you can do that’ll help prevent you from catching them in the first place:
- wash your hands regularly with soap and water, or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if water is not available
- don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands
- stay away from people who are sick
You can also use these simple measures to prevent spreading your cold to other people including:
- staying home while you’re sick
- wearing a facemask if you can’t stay home and you’re in a public place or have close contact with others
- avoiding close contact with other people such as hugging, kissing or shaking hands
- coughing and sneezing into a tissue and then throwing it away
- wash your hands after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose
No vaccines are currently available to prevent a cold and whilst scientists have tried, developing one is tricky because of the hundreds of different viruses that can cause a cold.
You might also have seen nasal sprays marketed as ‘first defence’, which claim to stop your cold in its tracks. Most of these contain a gel, often a seaweed-derived product called carrageenan, to create a barrier and stop the cold virus getting into the lining of your nose. It’s thought they may also alter the nose or throat environment and make it harder for the virus to survive. The evidence is so far limited with mostly small studies, but some have been encouraging, with one suggesting they could reduce cold symptoms by up to 1.9 days. The risk of side effects is low.
Can taking vitamin C prevent a cold?
The science so far has shown vitamin C doesn’t help reduce symptom severity or duration when it’s started after symptoms appear.But one analysis of lots of studies did find it might slightly reduce the duration of symptoms by about 8% in adults taking regular vitamin C.
Common cold vs RSV - can you tell the difference?
Another virus that you might have seen in recent headlines is the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). This has very similar symptoms to the cold virus and symptoms are usually mild. In adults, this usually causes cold-like symptoms including a runny nose and sore throat, or no symptoms at all. But in children under 1, it can cause more severe breathing problems such as bronchiolitis. Most babies with
have mild symptoms but if you are worried it’s always safest to see a doctor.
Watch this space
Millions of dollars have been spent on researching cold remedies and there is some research in the pipeline including:
- IMP-1088: a drug that’s being developed to work against the virus and stop it from multiplying. It’s still in the early stages of discovery but scientists are hopeful.
- Probiotics: a review of studies found probiotics could reduce the number of colds caught and the duration of a cold, although the evidence quality is still low and more research is needed. Read more about probiotics here.