Common Cold

More than 200 viruses can cause upper respiratory infections. The most common of these is the Rhinovirus, which causes up to half of all common colds. Students at Western Michigan University are likely to contract an average of one to four colds per year. There is no cure for viral infections. So, treatment of colds involves temporary relief of symptoms and immune system support while the virus runs its course.


Upper respiratory infections like the common cold are transmitted primarily through hand-to-hand contact with an infected person or by sharing objects that have been infected with the virus like a phone, drinking glass or other utensils. Cold viruses cannot multiply on these surfaces, but once transported into the nose, mouth or eyes, the virus can multiply and cause infection.

An adult is more likely to come down with a cold if his or her resistance is low or immune system is compromised. People are more susceptible during the fall, winter and spring seasons, when they spend more time indoors and in close contact with others. Allergic reactions that affect nasal passages or psychological stress may also increase one's chance of contracting a cold.


An upper respiratory infection typically has a duration of one to two weeks and may include any of the following symptoms:

  • Sore, scratchy throat
  • Runny nose, sneezing
  • Stuffy, congested nose
  • Yellow or green nasal discharge
  • Hoarseness
  • Full feeling in the ears or head
  • Cough, with or without mucous production
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Achiness
  • Chilliness
  • Low-grade fever

Symptom Relief

  • Antihistamines with beneficial effects are the 'first-generation' compounds which have a sedating effect, such as chlorpheniramine (4,8 or 12 mg), clemastine (1 mg) or brompheniramine (12 mg). Non-sedating antihistamines used for allergies have not been found effective for cold symptoms.
  • Decongestants such as pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine are oral decongestants which may help alleviate congestion. Nasal spray decongestants such as Afrin, however, may be used only for three days due to a rebound effect that increases congestion.
  • NSAIDS (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen will help reduce the inflammation, fever, pain and cough that accompany a cold.
  • Anticholinergics such as ipatropium can reduce nasal discharge.
  • Cough suppressants act on the brain to depress the cough reflex center.

Antibiotics combat bacterial, not viral, infections. Unless your cold has led to a secondary bacterial infection such as sinusitis, an antibiotic is not only a waste of money but may unnecessarily expose you to potential side effects.

Treatment for congestion and runny nose

Inhale warm, moist air to soothe inflamed mucous membranes. Use a humidifier for room air. Use in a small area with door closed and clean the humidifier regularly. Steam from a shower will help open congested air passages and relieve a raw, dry throat.

  • Drink plenty of water. It will help break up mucous and moisten respiratory membranes.
  • Place a moist, hot compress over the sinus area to help relieve congestion.
  • Decongestant medications can help relieve congestion but may interfere with sleep due to a stimulant effect.
  • Antihistamines have a drying effect on a drippy nose but commonly cause drowsiness.
  • Combination decongestant/antihistamine medications can reduce congestion and dry up a runny nose for people who are experiencing both symptoms.
  • Menthol products (lozenges or ointments) may also help relieve congestion.
  • Use over-the-counter saline nasal drops. Instill several drops into nostril then immediately bulb suction that nostril.

Note: Nose blowing creates high pressure in the nose and propels nasal fluid into the sinuses. Nose blowing may be a cause of sinus disease in colds. Early continuous treatment reduces the frequency of sneezing and the amount of nasal secretions, reducing the need for nose blowing.


It may be difficult to keep from catching a cold, but do the following to reduce your chances:

  • Wash hands regularly and avoid touching your face. Do not rely on germicidal lotions or similar products, as they may not kill Rhinovirus, the most common cold virus.
  • Avoid prolonged contact with people who have colds.
  • Keep your immune system strong by maintaining a healthy lifestyle. This includes eating a balanced, nutrient-rich diet, exercising regularly, minimizing unhealthy stress, not smoking and keeping alcohol consumption to a minimum.

When to see a health care provider

A cold can lead to a more serious secondary bacterial infection. See your healthcare provider if you are not feeling any better after seven to 10 days, or if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Pain or pressure around the eyes
  • Painful swelling in the neck glands
  • Painful breathing, wheezing, or shortness of breath
  • Severe headache
  • Fever greater than 100.5º for longer than two days
  • Extremely red throat or difficulty swallowing
  • If you have a fever with a cough or if your cough medicine is not working

For more information visit the National Institutes of Health.