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

Time saver 4 min read

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

For most of us, the common cold is an annual occurrence. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults average two to three colds per year—and kids even more.

And when you notice a headache and congestion setting in, it can be hard to know if it’s a cold or something else. We’re here to help.

Here you’ll learn everything you need to know about the common cold, including what causes a cold, how it spreads, what you can do to protect yourself and others from getting sick and how to get the right treatment.

Common cold causes

Remember your mom chasing you out the door as a kid – urging you to put on a hat so you wouldn’t catch a cold? Well, she didn’t have it quite right. You actually can’t catch a cold just from being out in cold weather.

That said, anything that weakens your immune system—from stress, lack of sleep, not drinking enough water or poor nutrition—can make you more susceptible to catching a cold.

In truth, colds are caused by viruses and there are many types of viruses that cause the common cold. Rhinoviruses are the most common, but respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), parainfluenza and even common coronaviruses can cause colds.

Cold symptoms vs. other conditions

The common cold shares some symptoms with the flu and COVID-19.

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

But there are some telltale differences between the three illnesses.

Common cold symptoms

There are some cold symptoms that aren’t typical if you have COVID-19 or the flu.

  • Sneezing
  • Watery eyes
  • Post-nasal drip

Symptoms associated with a common cold usually come on gradually and last around 7 to 10 days.

Flu symptoms

If you have the flu, you may also experience the following types of symptoms.

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

Flu symptoms also tend to set in quickly – making you feel like you’ve been hit by a bus.

COVID-19 symptoms

In addition to symptoms like fever and congestion, some people may experience other symptoms that are unique to COVID-19.

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

COVID-19 symptoms also tend to come on more gradually than flu symptoms. If you think you may have COVID, get tested today. At-home COVID tests are widely available at pharmacies and clinics.

How is the common cold spread?

Cold viruses spread by infected people through droplets in the air when they cough, sneeze or talk. Once airborne, the virus can enter your body through your eyes, nose or mouth and easily spread through hand-to-hand contact on high-touch surfaces (think doorknobs, drawer pulls, utensils, phones, etc.).

While cold viruses spread easily, there are ways to protect yourself and others.

Protect yourself against the common cold

When it comes to the common cold, prevention is your best line of defense.

  • Consistently and thoroughly wash your hands, 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 can enter 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 stress helps keep your immune system primed so it can fend off viruses.

Protect others against the common cold

If you get a cold, there are a few things you can do to prevent spreading it to others.

  • Stay home – Don’t go to school, work or social gatherings until your cold symptoms improve and you feel better.
  • Cover your cough and sneeze – Use a tissue when coughing or sneezing or sneeze and cough into the bend of your elbow.
  • Wash your hands well and often – Prevent the spread of germs through hand-to-hand contact by washing your hands thoroughly after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose.

What to do when you have a cold

When you have a cold, you just want to feel better. But how? The common cold is viral not bacterial, so antibiotics aren’t an effective treatment. But thankfully, there are several things you can do to manage cold symptoms while your immune system does its job.

Stay home and rest

Make sure you get plenty of sleep and take time to rest your body. Give yourself permission to turn in early. Your body will thank you.

Break out the home remedies

There are many home remedies for tackling cold symptoms. For example, a neti pot can help clear congested nasal passages and a warm compress can soothe sore sinuses.

Get treatment online

When home remedies just aren’t cutting it, start a visit anytime at Virtuwell to get a diagnosis and personalized treatment plan from a nurse practitioner—all without leaving your home (or bed). At Virtuwell, we’ll assess your symptoms and help you find the best way to feel better quickly. Plus, if your symptoms worsen or linger, we’re here to answer questions with free follow-up care.

Feel better sooner

Sometimes it’s hard to know if it’s a common cold, COVID-19 or the flu. We 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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