Cold and Flu

All About the Common Cold

An Overview of the Common Cold

Colds are almost certainly the most commonly occuring illness among humans. Adults in the United States average two to three per year, and kids can get as many as 10. There is no cure for the common cold or a vaccine to prevent it because it can be caused by so many different viruses. So, what can you really do? There is both good and bad information out there. We are here to set the record straight.

It turns out, you may not know everything you need to about the common cold.


The common cold is caused by a virus—over 200 different of them, actually. Rhinoviruses are the type that cause most colds, but they can also be caused by coronaviruses, respiratory synctial virus (RSV), parainfluenza, and others. 

Because colds are caused by so many different viruses, there likely will never be a cure.

We can't develop immunity to colds because there is always another virus that our bodies haven't seen that will cause similar symptoms. 

What are a few things that don't cause colds?

Wet hair, cold weather, and changes in temperature. These "old wives' tales" have been shared and passed down for generations, but they have no basis in science. Research has shown that people may be more likely to catch colds during the winter when the air is cold and dry, but it is not the weather itself that makes you sick. Only germs can do that.  


Colds are a respiratory illness, meaning they tend to cause symptoms in your head and sometimes your chest.

For most people, symptoms are generally mild and go away on their own within about a week. 

Common cold symptoms include:

  • runny nose
  • congestion
  • cough
  • headache
  • sore throat
  • itchy or watery eyes
  • fever (rare—more common in children)

Although cold symptoms are annoying, they are rarely serious. People with chronic health conditions—especially those that affect the respiratory system, like asthma and COPD—may have more difficulty recovering from a cold or may have more significant symptoms. People with weakened immune systems may also have a harder time getting over a cold. 


As we mentioned before, there is no cure for the common cold. It is a self-limiting illness, which means it will go away on its own with time. Usually, they only last about a week. But most everyone knows that week can seem very long when you aren't feeling well. 

There may not be any medications that will "cure" a cold, but there are plenty of things you can do to get relief from your symptoms. Whether you take modern over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, natural, or herbal remedies, or some combination of the two, you don't have to suffer.


Pain Relievers/Fever Reducers

Giving your child Tylenol or Motrin may be a no-brainer when she has a fever, but they can also help with the aches and pains that come along with a cold. Even if there is no fever, these medicines can help with headaches, sore throat, and the general feeling of discomfort you have when you are sick. It's important to remember, however, that children should never be given aspirin.


Decongestants are a type of medicine that can help unclog a stuffy nose. They can help by temporarily relieving that stuffy, congested feeling in your nose and sinuses. 


Although expectorants are often used to help with coughs, they help by thinning mucus, making it easier to expel. That means it can help mucus drain and it will be easier to cough up and get it out of your lungs and head. 

Cough Suppressants

Although these are the first medications many people seek when they have a cough, they should be used sparingly. Coughing is the body's way of expelling foreign material (mucus) from the lungs.

It's important not to prevent that action because allowing mucus to sit and pool in your lungs can lead to much more serious infections—like pneumonia. If your cough is so bad that it is interfering with sleep, it is OK to take a cough suppressant, just don't take it around the clock. 

Allergy Medicine

Antihistamines, such as Benadryl, Claritin, and Zyrtec, are often recommended or taken by people who have colds because they are supposed to help with itching and runny nose. Both of these are common symptoms of colds, but they occur for a different reason when you have a cold than they do when you have allergies. Most research has shown that anthistamines and other allergy medicines—like inhaled corticosteroids, such as Flonase and Nasacort—are ineffective when it comes to cold symptoms. They are unlikely to do much harm, but they probably won't help much either. 

Natural and Herbal Remedies

There are a lot of products on the market that fall under this category and claim to help with cold symptoms.

We will cover some of the most common here and highlight what the research shows as well as what you should know if you decide to try one yourself. 

  • Vitamin C - The use of vitamin C to cure or prevent a cold has been researched probably more than any other natural remedy out there. Although some studies show beneficial results, others do not. The most promising study showed that it helped prevent colds in highly trained athletes and conditioned military personnel. Unfortunately, the results were not able to be duplicated in the general population. Taking vitamin C is unlikely to be harmful to most people, but high doses can cause diarrhea, and you should not take vitamin C supplements if you have kidney disease. 
  • Echinacea - This popular herbal remedy has been used for years to prevent and treat the common cold. Unfortunately, the studies that have been conducted did not show any true benefit. It's also important to know that it can affect the liver and should not be taken with other medicines that are processed in the liver, such as Tylenol (acetaminophen), or by those who already have liver problems. 
  • Elderberry - The use of elderberry supplements to help with cold symptoms has been inconclusive. Some small studies have shown benefits, while others have not. More research is needed on this supplement to know if it could actually help. It should be used with caution if you have kidney problems or frequent urination. Talk to your doctor before taking this supplement if you do. 

Non-Medication Relief

In addition to taking OTC products or natural remedies, there are things you can do to relieve your symptoms that involve no medicine or supplements at all. These are actually some of the most effective - I use them on myself and my own family all the time. 

  • Neti-Pot or Saline Rinse - Rinsing the sinuses with a saline solution is a great way to get relief from your congestion and sinus pressure. There are multiple products available that can help you with this. Neti-pots are widely available in grocery stores and pharmacies. NeilMed Sinus Rinse kit is a bottle that (in my opinion) is even easier to use than a Neti-pot. You can also achieve similar results with a pre-packaged saline spray, but know that you will likely use the entire can for one rinse, so it's not very cost effective. The most important factor to remember when using a sinus rinse is to use distilled or previously boiled (and cooled) water. Never use tap water that has not been boiled first because it can cause infections. 
  • Saline drops or spray - Even if you aren't rinsing out your sinuses, using saline drops or spray can help loosen the mucus in your nose and nasal passages to make it easier to drain or expel. This is particularly useful in infants and young children who cannot tolerate a sinus rinse. 
  • Humidifier - Using a humidifier when you are sick will put extra moisture in the air, making it easier to breathe and helping moisten your airways, so you can sleep more comfortably. Colds are most common during cold winter months when the air is drier and we often have heaters running in our homes, which dries the air out even more. Using a humidifier can help counteract the dry air and make you more comfortable, especially when you are sleeping. 
  • Drink More Water - This is really quite easy and just like all of the products mentioned above, extra water equals extra moisture. Staying hydrated is essential when you are sick, so mucus won't be as thick and your respiratory system will not be so dry. 
  • Sleep - Getting enough sleep is always important, but it's even more important when you are sick. Our bodies recover faster when we rest and allow our immune system to do its job. 

Preventing the Common Cold

Since there is no vaccine or cure for the common cold, your best bet really is prevention. This is not feasible 100 percent of the time, but there are many things you can do to reduce your chances of getting sick. 

Wash Your Hands. This is by far the most important thing you can do to prevent the spread of illness. Whether it's a cold, the flu, or the plague, washing your hands is your best bet at preventing it. Wash them frequently and correctly. Germs are most often spread because we touch something with germs on it, then touch our faces. 

Use Hand Sanitizer. If you don't have access to soap and water, use hand sanitizer. As long as it contains more than 60 percent alcohol, it will effectively kill most germs, including cold viruses. However, if your hands are visibly soiled (you can see the dirt, etc), then washing with soap and water is essential. 

Cover Your Cough. If you have a cough, cover your mouth with a tissue or the inside of your elbow. When you cough, your germs can fly as far as 6 feet away and make other around you sick. When you cough into your hands, all those germs are then on your hands and are spread to everything you touch. If you cough into a tissue, you will catch most of the germs in the tissue and can then throw it away. If you don't have a tissue handy, cough into the crook of your elbow, since that will block the spread of the germs but you are unlikely to touch anything with that part of your arm. 

Eat Right, Exercise, Get Enough Sleep. We hear professionals say this all the time and know it's easier said than done. But it truly is the best way to keep your body healthy. If you take care of yourself, your immune system has the best opportunity to function like it should and protect you from as many illnesses as possible. There is no way to prevent every cold out there, but taking care of your body gives you the best chance at staying well.  

Myths About the Common Cold

There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about colds. With the Internet and social media, the misinformation spreads like wildfire. Now more than ever, it's important to know that just because someone wrote it down, that doesn't make it true! 

We have a whole list of cold and flu remedies that have no basis in science. We'll cover some of the most common here as well. 

  • Cold Weather Can Make You Sick: Nope, only germs can do that. There are reasons why we get sick more often during the colder months, but it's not the temperature itself. 
  • An Onion in the Room Can Absorb Germs: Sorry folks, it doesn't work.
  • Cinnamon and Honey Can Cure the Common Cold: Although honey is a great natural remedy to help with coughs and sore throat, it does not contain any properties that will kill the common cold and neither does cinnamon.  
  • Essential Oils: These are wildly popular and used for nearly every ailment you can think of, but there is very little to no scientific evidence to back up any claim their distributors make. 
  • Vicks VapoRub on the Feet: Many parents believe applying Vicks VapoRub to their child's feet when she has a cough will help stop it. Is there any truth in this? Not according to science. 

There are a lot more home remedies that are shared and passed around by word of mouth. Chances are, if it sounds too good to be true, it is. If you aren't sure, please talk to a medical professional about it before trying it on yourself or your child. What seemed to work for one person may not work for you and could even be dangerous. 

When to See Your Doctor

Most people do not need to see a doctor when they have a cold, but there are certain instances when it may be necessary. If you have been sick for several days, start to feel better for a day or two but then get sick again, usually with symptoms worse than before, go to the doctor. This is a classic sign that you have developed a secondary infection. You may need additional treatment if you have developed something like pneumonia. 

If you or your child has signs of trouble breathing, like wheezing, uncontrollable coughing, or retracting, seek medical attention right away. 

A Word From Verywell

Colds are something we will all have to deal with from time to time. They usually aren't serious and will go away on their own. Knowing how to make yourself or your loved ones more comfortable can go a long way to making that time more tolerable. If you are worried about your symptoms, it's always good to check with your healthcare provider to make sure they aren't a problem. And remember, colds are caused by viruses, so antibiotics won't help!


CDC. Antibiotics Aren’t Always the Answer. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published March 16, 2016. 

Common Cold. Common Cold. 

Facts About The Common Cold. American Lung Association. 

5 Tips: Natural Products for the Flu and Colds: What Does the Science Say? NCCIH. Published February 21, 2012. 

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