Got The Common Cold?

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Reviewed by Dr Karina Palad, MD
Written by updoc's Editorial Team
Published 14 July 2023

What You Need To Know About The Common Cold

The common cold is a widespread respiratory illness that affects millions of people each year. It’s so common that children may get it 5 to 10 times a year, while adults can get it 2 to 4 times a year. A cold is more often considered a minor inconvenience and is significantly less severe than the flu (Influenza).


Recognising the symptoms of a cold is essential for early intervention and better management of symptoms, including:

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Coughing (typically a dry or mild cough)
  • Mild headache
  • Fatigue or tiredness
  • Mild body aches
  • Watery eyes

Fevers are less common in adults, however can occur in infants and young children. It’s important to consult with a healthcare practitioner as symptoms can vary between person to person and could indicate other illnesses.


The common cold is primarily caused by viruses, with rhinoviruses being the most prevalent. These viruses are highly contagious and can be easily transmitted from person to person through respiratory droplets.

  • Direct contact: with an infected person, such as shaking hands, hugging, and kissing.
  • Indirect contact: by touching contaminated surfaces or objects, such as buttons and door handles, and then touching your face, especially your nose, eyes, or mouth.
  • Airborne transmission: by inhaling respiratory droplets released when an infected person coughs or sneezes.


It is almost impossible to completely avoid exposure to the viruses that cause the common cold. However, taking preventative measures can significantly reduce the chance of infection and transmission:

  • Practice good hand hygiene by washing your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after being in public places, using the restroom, or touching surfaces that may be contaminated. Alcohol-based hand sanitisers are also an alternative.
  • Avoid close contact with infected individuals including hugging, shaking hands, kissing or sharing personal items. If you have a cold, minimize contact with others to prevent transmission.
  • Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands as viruses can enter your body through eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Keep your surroundings clean to minimise the presence of cold viruses on commonly touched surfaces
  • Boosting immune system by eating a balanced diet, staying physically active, getting enough sleep, and managing stress


A healthcare practitioner would be able to diagnose a common cold through a physical examination and review of medical history and symptoms. Lab tests are generally unnecessary unless symptoms persist or worsen over an extended period of time, or complications arise.


Common colds usually resolve on their own within a week or two. They are viral infections, meaning antibiotics will be ineffective. Treatment options are aimed to alleviate symptoms and promote the recovery process:

  • Rest and hydration rest allows your body to recover and fight off the virus. Staying hydrated can help prevent dehydration and soothe a sore throat.
  • Over-the-counter medications can provide temporary relief from symptoms such as nasal congestion, coughing, and sneezing. These medications may include decongestants, cough suppressants, expectorants, and antihistamines. However, it's important to carefully read and follow the instructions, and consulting with a healthcare practitioner can ensure safe use
  • Saltwater gargles can help soothe a sore throat
  • Over-the-counter relief such as cough suppressants and nasal sprays can provide temporary relief from congestion, coughing, and other respiratory symptoms.
  • Humidifiers/steam inhalation can help moisturize and soothe irritated nasal passages, providing temporary relief from congestion.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the 5 stages of cold?
The five stages of a cold are incubation, prodromal, symptoms peak, improvement, and recovery. However, the exact experience can vary from case to case.
What are 4 symptoms of the common cold?
Symptoms of a cold can vary, however the four most common are a runny/stuffy nose, sore throat, cough, and sneezing.
How long does a common cold last? 
Most people start to feel better within 7-10 days. However, there may be lingering symptoms that persist such as mild fatigue and lingering cough. If symptoms worsen or persist for an extended period, it is advisable to consult with a healthcare professional.
Can a cold be mistaken for COVID?
Yes, the symptoms of a common cold can overlap with those of COVID-19, especially in the early stages. Both illnesses can cause symptoms such as cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, and mild fatigue. 
How do I tell it’s COVID-19 and not a cold?
COVID-19 may also present with additional symptoms like fever, loss of taste or smell, shortness of breath, and body aches.
Should I go to work if I have a cold?
If you have a cold, it is generally advisable to stay home from work to rest, recover, and prevent the spread of the virus to others. You can request a telehealth consultation using updoc’s platform for medical advice.

Disclaimer: this can affect individuals differently and on a case by case basis. It it best to consult with your health practitioner to seek medical advice and receive a personalised diagnosis, and treatment plan.

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