The common cold leads to more healthcare provider visits and absences from school and work than any other illness does each year. It is caused by a virus and is easily spread to others. It’s not caused by cold weather.

Key Points

  • A cold is caused by a virus that leads to inflammation of the membranes that line the nose and throat. Contrary to popular belief, cold weather or being chilled doesn’t cause a cold.
  • The common cold is highly contagious. It’s often spread through airborne droplets when the sick person coughs or sneezes into the air. Infection can occur after the droplets are inhaled by another person. Symptoms may include: a stuffy; runny nose; scratchy, tickly throat; sneezing; watery eyes and low-grade fever.

A cold and the flu (influenza) are two different illnesses. Be aware of these differences:

Cold Symptoms:    
Low or no fever    
Sometimes a headache    
Stuffy, runny nose    
Sneezing    
Mild, hacking cough    
Slight aches and pains    
Mild fatigue    
Sore throat    
Normal energy level or may feel sluggish    

Flu Symptoms:
High fever
Headache is very common
Clear nose
Sometimes sneezing
Cough, often becoming severe
Often severe aches and pains
Several weeks of fatigue
Sometimes a sore throat
Extreme exhaustion

How to Treat the Common Cold

Currently, there is no medication available to cure or shorten the duration of the common cold. However, the following are some treatments that may help relieve some symptoms of the cold:

  • Over-the-counter cold medications, such as decongestants and cough medicines
  • Over-the-counter antihistamines (medication that helps dry up nasal secretions and suppress coughing)
  • Rest
  • Increased fluid intake
  • Pain relievers for headache or fever
  • Warm, saltwater gargling for sore throat
  • Petroleum jelly for raw, chapped skin around the nose and lips
  • Warm steam for congestion

Because colds are caused by viruses, antibiotics don’t work. Antibiotics are effective only when given to treat bacterial infections.

Do not give aspirin to a child who has a fever. Aspirin, when given as treatment for viral illnesses in children, has been associated with Reye’s syndrome. This is a potentially serious or deadly disorder in children.

When to Call Your Healthcare Provider

If your symptoms get worse or you have new symptoms, let your healthcare provider know. If your symptoms don’t improve within a few days, call your provider, as you could have another type of infection.

The Outer Banks Hospital has two urgent care centers – one in Southern Shores and one in Nags Head. If you need the help of a healthcare provider, please visit one of them. If you have a more serious problem, our Emergency Department is open 24 hours a day/365 days a year to assist you.

Please visit our health library to learn about other topics of interest.

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