The common cold: Causes, symptoms and how to protect yourself

Time saver 4 min read

Sore throat, stuffy nose, a hacking cough — it’s that time of year again: cold season.

The common cold is an annual pest for most of us. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults have an average of two to three colds each year—and children have even more.

This cold season is quite a bit different from past years as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. If you’re feeling a little under the weather, it can be easy to assume the worst. Don’t worry, we’re here to help.

Here you’ll learn everything you need to know about the common cold, including what causes the common cold and how it spreads, how common cold symptoms and COVID-19 symptoms differ, how to protect yourself and others from getting sick, and how to get the right treatment.

Causes of the common cold

There are many types of viruses that cause a common cold. Rhinoviruses are the most common, but respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), parainfluenza, and even common human coronaviruses can cause colds.

That’s right! Common coronaviruses were first identified in the ‘60s. Odds are, you’ve come into contact with common coronaviruses before. COVID-19 is caused by a very specific coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.

There are also quite a few common colds caused by viruses doctors can’t pinpoint.

Remember your mom chasing you out the front door as a kid, urging you to put on a hat so you don’t catch a cold? Well, she wasn’t necessarily right. The common cold is not, in fact, caused by being out in cold weather. You should still dress appropriately for the weather, but it won’t cause you to become sick.

That said, anything that weakens your immune system—stress, lack of sleep, water, and proper nutrition—can make you more susceptible to catching a cold.

Symptoms of the common cold vs. flu vs. COVID-19

The common cold has a lot of similar symptoms to the flu and COVID-19, so it’s important to know the difference. The symptoms that the common cold, flu, and COVID-19 share are:

  • Cough
  • Headache
  • Fever or chills—though fairly rare with colds

That said, there are some telltale differences between the three illnesses.

Flu symptoms

If you have the flu, your common-cold-like symptoms will be accompanied by:

  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Your symptoms will also happen quickly. If you feel like your illness hit you like a bus, the flu may be the culprit.

COVID-19 symptoms

There is a list of symptoms unique to COVID-19 to be on the lookout for. If you’ve contracted COVID-19, your symptoms may be coupled with:

  • New shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • New and sudden loss of taste or smell
  • More severe, dry, and persistent cough

COVID-19 symptoms may also come on more gradually than the flu.

Common cold symptoms

And, there are some cold symptoms that are rarer in COVID-19 or flu cases, including:

  • Sneezing
  • Watery eyes
  • Post-nasal drip

These symptoms will usually come on gradually, and last anywhere from 7–10 days.

How is the common cold spread?

The common cold spreads in similar ways to COVID-19 and the seasonal flu. It can transmit from infected people through droplets in the air when someone who is sick coughs, sneezes, or talks. The virus enters your body through your eyes, nose, and mouth, and can be easily spread through hand-to-hand contact on high-touch surfaces (think doorknobs, drawer pulls, utensils, phones, etc.).

Because the spread of the virus is relatively easy, it’s important to take specific precautions to protect yourself and others against the cold.

How to protect yourself and others against the common cold

Protecting yourself against the common cold

Preventing the common cold is your best line of defense. To stay safe and fend off the virus:

  • Consistently wash your hands thoroughly, for 20 seconds each time—if soap and water aren’t available, alcohol-based hand sanitizer will work in a pinch.
  • Avoid touching your face—especially if you haven’t washed your hands right before. Remember, the virus enters through your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Continue cleaning and disinfecting your home—especially high-touch surfaces where the virus can easily spread from person to person.
  • Avoid sharing beverages or utensils with friends and family—especially if someone in your household is sick.
  • Take care of yourself—getting enough sleep and exercise, eating balanced meals, and managing your stress—will arm your immune system with what it needs to fend off the virus.

Protecting others against the common cold

If you’ve come down with a cold, there are a few things you can do to prevent spreading it to your family and friends.

  • Refrain from going to work or school—or any social gatherings for that matter. Wait until your cold has subsided before resuming in-person gatherings.
  • Cover your cough and sneeze—When coughing or sneezing, use tissues as often as possible, discarding them immediately after. Also, sneeze and cough into the bend of your elbow to prevent spreading the cold through air droplets.
  • Wash your hands after coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose—washing your hands immediately will prevent the spread of germs through hand-to-hand contact.

What to do when you have a cold

So how can you feel better when you have a cold? Because the common cold is viral, not bacterial, antibiotics won’t be an effective treatment if you have a common cold. But not to worry. There are plenty of ways to manage your symptoms and get on the road to recovery.

Stay home and rest

Ensure you’re getting plenty of sleep and taking time to rest your body. Give yourself permission to turn in early. Your body will thank you.

Break out the home remedies

There are so many home remedies for tackling the symptoms of colds. Whether it’s a neti pot to clear the nasal passages or a warm compress for your sore sinuses, you can surely find some relief with things that you have at home.

Get treated online

When the home remedies just aren’t cutting it, finding the right combination of over-the-counter medications will be the best way to start feeling like yourself again.

Start a visit anytime at Virtuwell to get a diagnosis and personalized treatment plan from a nurse practitioner—all without leaving your bed. Not only can Virtuwell help you find the best way to feel better quickly, but we can provide a sense of relief that it’s not something more serious, and provide free follow-up care if you’re not getting the results you need.

Feel better sooner

Sometimes it’s hard to know if it’s a common cold, the flu, or even COVID-19. We’ll ask the right questions to get you the care and treatment you need to feel better sooner – all from the comfort of home.

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