What Is the Common Cold?

What Is the Common Cold?

The common cold is a viral infection of the nose and upper respiratory system (throat). Typical cold symptoms include a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, coughing, scratchy or sore throat, watery eyes, malaise, and aches and pain. Sometimes, a headache can occur.

Colds can be easily passed on to others in offices, workplaces, schools, daycares, and homes.

Common Cold vs. Flu

It can be difficult to tell if something is a cold or the flu. While the common cold and the flu are both viral infections, they are caused by different viruses. Influenza causes the common seasonal epidemics that primarily occur in winter in the United States (often referred to as "flu season.”)

Both have symptoms, including nasal congestion, cough , aches, and malaise. However, it is rare to have a fever above 101 degrees Fahrenheit with the common cold, whereas the flu often begins with a fever.

Body aches that appear with a cold are usually mild; with the flu, they're typically more severe. Extreme exhaustion is common at the beginning of the flu; this does not occur with a cold. Sneezing, coughing, and a sore throat are typical of the common cold, they do not usually appear with the flu.

Common Cold vs. COVID-19

The common cold and COVID-19 are both viruses and share several symptoms.

COVID-19 and the common cold can cause a runny or stuffy nose, sore throat, and cough—though with COVID-19, the cough is usually dry. Sneezing can occur in both the common cold and COVID-19. It's more common in people vaccinated against COVID-19 than those who have not.

Aches, fever, and tiredness can also occur with both types of infection, but these symptoms are more common in COVID-19. New loss of taste or smell—a typical symptom of COVID-19—can occasionally present with the common cold, often in tandem with a stuffy nose. Diarrhea and nausea or vomiting sometimes occur in COVID-19 cases, but they do not occur in cases of the common cold.

It's important to remember that both colds and COVID-19 can present differently in different people. If you're feeling unwell, a COVID-19 test is recommended.

Stages of Common Cold


The common cold typically presents in four stages:

  • Incubation period — This initial stage of the common cold, usually lasting between 12 hours to three days, refers to the time between infection and the appearance of symptoms.
  • Symptomatic period — During this stage, cold symptoms begin to appear. These may include sore throat, sneezing, runny or stuffy nose, coughing, malaise, and aches. Symptoms usually peak within one to three days.
  • Remission — At this point, cold symptoms begin to alleviate. Remission typically occurs between three and ten days after infection.
  • Recovery — In the final stage of the common cold, there may be some remaining symptoms, but they're usually mild. It may take up to two weeks for any lingering symptoms to fully resolve.

Signs & Symptoms of Common Cold


A common cold's initial signs and symptoms are usually readily apparent and may appear suddenly after infection.

Typical common cold symptoms include:

  • Runny nose
  • Sinus pressure
  • Sneezing
  • Loss of taste or smell (usually accompanied by a stuffy nose)
  • Headache
  • Chills
  • Watery eyes
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Malaise
  • Fatigue
  • Body aches

A runny nose is often one of the first cold symptoms, with watery mucus that may become thicker and darker in the coming days. You may also experience other symptoms such as malaise, a mild cough, a sore or scratchy throat, nasal congestion, and a general feeling of unwellness.

Adults generally don't need to see a doctor for cases of the common cold. However, you should see a primary care doctor if:

  • Symptoms persist for more than three weeks
  • Symptoms recur
  • You have a fever that improves, then returns suddenly
  • You have a fever of 104 or higher
  • It is difficult to breathe

The common cold usually causes similar symptoms in children and adults, with a few key differences.

Common cold symptoms in kids

Although the common cold is usually not dangerous in children or adults, kids tend to become infected with colds more frequently than adults. Colds often spread easily in daycares and schools.
The common cold rarely causes serious illness in children and infants, but you should seek pediatric primary care if children exhibit any of the following symptoms of a cold:

  • Fever of 100.4 or higher in babies up to 12 weeks old
  • Fever lasting more than two days
  • "Barking" or extreme cough
  • Wheezing
  • Lack of appetite
  • Ear pain
  • Decreased urine output
  • Very severe symptoms
  • Extreme fussiness
  • Rising fever

If your child has difficulty breathing or breathing unusually fast, call 911. If your child is 3 months or younger and has a cold, you should consult with a doctor regardless of the severity of the symptoms.

What Causes the Common Cold?


The common cold can be caused by more than 200 rhinoviruses, which inflame the nose and throat when the virus enters the body through the nose, mouth, or eyes. Colds can spread easily from:

  • Person-to-person contact
  • Aerosol transmission, such as when someone sneezes or coughs
  • Contact with contaminated surfaces

Risk Factors for the Common Cold

Risk Factors

Certain environmental, behavioral, and genetic factors can increase your risk of contracting the common cold, including:

  • Season. The common cold is more prevalent in the fall and winter months.
  • Age. Children are more like than adults to contract the common cold.
  • Smoking. Because smoking disrupts the immune systems, smokers may be at increased risk of contracting the common cold, as well as developing more severe illness.
  • Weakened or undeveloped immune system. People with a weakened immune system, such as those with a chronic illness, are at increased risk of catching colds.
  • Setting. Being in crowded settings, such as offices, daycares, and schools, can increase the risk of getting a cold.
  • Stress. While stress does not directly cause the common cold, it can make people more likely to develop a cold.
  • Lack of sleep. Some studies have shown that people who do not get quality sleep or enough sleep may be more likely to get a cold.



In rare cases, the common cold can cause complications, including:

  • Sinusitis (sinus infection). If a case of the common cold persists, it can end up blocking the sinuses, causing infection and inflammation.
  • Strep throat. Colds can also cause strep throat, a bacterial infection. It's most common in children, but adults can get it too.
  • Bronchitis. Sometimes a cold can turn into bronchitis, a viral lower respiratory infection. This occurs when the mucus membranes in the lungs become irritated.
  • Pneumonia. Pneumonia occurs when the germs that cause the common cold enter the lungs, causing inflammation. Young children, older adults, and people with certain conditions are most at risk for dangerous cases of pneumonia.
  • Acute ear infection. If a cold virus enters the space behind the eardrum, it can cause fluid buildup and congestion. This can be quite painful. Children frequently develop ear infections when dealing with a cold.
  • Croup. Most common in young children, croup causes a harsh, barking cough .

Common Cold Prevention

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth unless you have just washed your hands.
  • Wash your hands frequently, working soap and warm water into a lather for at least 20 seconds. If you can't wash your hands, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Stay away from people who are sick or displaying symptoms.
  • Whenever possible, choose day cares that have regular sanitization measures in place, employ quality air ventilation systems to reduce the concentration of airborne cold virus particles, and ensure children wash their hands regularly. Ask day cares directly about their standards and practices.
  • Wearing a face mask—such as an N95 respirator—can help reduce the risk of airborne transmission.
Get Care

Trust NewYork-Presbyterian for Common Cold Care

If you or your child is exhibiting unusual, severe, worsening, or persisting common cold symptoms, schedule an appointment at NewYork-Presbyterian or one of our medical group locations.

Our doctors are experts in common cold care and can provide treatment recommendations for typical cases as well as any cases with complications.