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Diseases A–Z

Common cold

Symptoms | Complications | Prevention

The common cold is probably the most common respiratory (breathing) disease. Many different viruses can cause a cold; over a hundred cold viruses (rhinoviruses) have been identified so far.

How do you catch a cold?

Cold viruses are very contagious — it's easy to catch them from other people. When someone has a cold, there is a lot of the cold-causing virus in their nose and throat. If the person coughs or sneezes, they can spray the virus into the air and infect other people directly. If the person with the cold coughs or sneezes on objects, or on their hands, those things can carry the virus too. Cold viruses can live for many hours on objects like toys, door handles, telephones, pens, tissues and more. If a healthy person picks up an object covered with cold germs, then touches their nose, mouth or eyes, they can catch the virus.

Cold viruses are around all year long, but we seem to get more colds in the winter. This is because we spend more time indoors in the winter, so we're in closer proximity to other people and to their germs.

If you are tired, in poor physical condition, exposed to some air pollutants or have a chronic lung disease like asthma or COPD, you may be more susceptible to colds.

Cold symptoms

One to three days after the virus takes hold in your body, you can get these symptoms:

  • sore throat
  • cough
  • runny nose, congestion
  • feeling tired and run-down
  • sneezing
  • headache
  • soreness and achy muscles

A cold causes different symptoms than the flu; flu symptoms are more severe and come on more quickly.

Treating a cold

Most of the time people can treat a cold at home. Get lots of rest and drink plenty of water. If you smoke, cut down or quit to help you get over your cold faster.

You can't cure a cold, but you can take over-the-counter medicine to relieve cold symptoms. Ask your pharmacist to recommend a cold symptom medication that's right for you.

Complications from a cold

Some people get complications from a cold. A cold can sometimes lead to acute bronchitis, croup, pneumonia, sinusitis, or strep throat. People with chronic lung diseases like asthma and COPD, are especially vulnerable. People with asthma and COPD who get colds should follow their written action plans and see their doctor if symptoms do not improve.

How do you prevent colds?

Fight germs by washing your hands properly and often, and by covering coughs and sneezes

Keep your immune systems strong by staying in shape, eating well and getting enough sleep.

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