Everyday Health

Common Questions About the Common Cold

Originally published February 24, 2021

Last updated April 29, 2024

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Common Questions About the Common Cold

The average adult can have two to three colds per year, but is there anything you can do to make the common cold a less common fixture in your health? Here’s what you need to know.

The common cold has earned its ubiquitous standing — one runny nose and sore throat at a time. With the average adult catching a cold two to three times a year, and children even more so, it’s no wonder that the U.S. National Library of Medicine says the common cold is likely the most common illness. Approximately 1 billion cases of the common cold occur every year in the United States alone.

Here’s how to know if you’ve come down with a cold — and how to prevent one in the first place.

What causes the common cold?

The common cold can be caused by more than 200 different viruses, and although you’re more likely to get sick in the winter and spring, you can catch a cold 365 days a year. In general, the principal difference between a cold in February and one in August is the type of virus circulating at that time of the year. Winter colds are most often caused by rhinoviruses, a group of viruses that appears to fare best in colder temperatures, while summertime colds are generally linked to enteroviruses.

What are the symptoms of the common cold?

Regardless of the time of year you happen to catch a cold, it’s important to be familiar with common symptoms you may experience and how long they may last.

“Common cold symptoms may include sore throat, congestion or runny nose, cough, low-grade fever and generalized fatigue,” says Isabel Edge, MD, a family medicine physician at Keck Medicine of USC and clinical assistant professor of family medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

Additional symptoms can include sneezing, headaches and body aches. In general, recovery from the common cold can take seven to 10 days.

How are colds different from the flu and COVID-19?

According to Dr. Edge, the common cold doesn’t usually cause some of the more severe symptoms that can be associated with the flu or COVID-19, like high-grade fever, severe body aches and shortness of breath.

“In general, symptoms of a common cold are milder,” she explains.

Colds may also come on more gradually.

And while you can lose your sense of smell with a common cold and COVID-19, Dr. Edge says there are some key differences.

“A cold can affect your sense of smell if you have significant congestion, but the loss of smell caused by a cold tends to be less severe and doesn’t last as long as symptoms brought on by COVID-19,” she explains. “As the congestion from a cold diminishes, your sense of smell improves; whereas with COVID-19, your loss of smell can last weeks to months after recovery.”

What is the fastest way to get rid of a cold?

If you’re looking for a quick way to get over a cold, you may be disappointed.

“The bad news is there’s not much you can do to make colds go away quickly,” Dr. Edge says. “The good news is colds typically aren’t serious, and you can manage symptoms while you wait for the infection to run its course.”

She recommends getting plenty of rest, staying hydrated and taking over-the-counter medications to manage symptoms, including headaches and fever. Talk to your doctor if you have any questions about taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

When it comes to home remedies, Dr. Edge says there is some evidence that nasal saline sprays or rinses with sterilized water can help with congestion. Research also suggests that honey can help suppress a cough, but it should not be given to children 12 months old or younger, she notes.

Can colds be prevented?

Luckily, there are lots of good ways to prevent getting sick in the first place, including some of the safety precautions — like wearing masks, handwashing, physical distancing and disinfecting surfaces — that we’ve adopted in response to COVID-19, Dr. Edge says.

“The best way to keep from getting a cold is to avoid contact with sick people, wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.”

When you should see a doctor

Colds don’t generally require a trip to the doctor unless symptoms last for more than 10 days. If you are unable to stay hydrated or if you develop shortness of breath, Dr. Edge recommends getting immediate medical attention, as these symptoms suggest you may be experiencing more than the common cold. If you don’t have severe symptoms, but you’re still concerned you may have the flu or COVID-19, call your doctor.

Colds can sometimes lead to additional infections, including ear and sinus infections.

“If you develop ear pain, severe sinus headaches or worsening cough seven to 14 days after you started having symptoms of a cold, especially if you also have a fever, it’s time to call your doctor,” she says.

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Tina Donvito
Tina Donvito is a freelance writer covering health, culture, travel and parenting.