Common Cold Symptoms, Diagnosis and How to Treat

The first signs of the common cold are fairly obvious: a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, and a scratchy, sore throat. Most people quickly recognize these early symptoms because the common cold is so ordinary. In fact, adults have an average of 2 to 3 colds per year.

The common cold is actually a viral infection in your upper respiratory tract. A cold can be caused by more than 200 viruses. The most common are rhinoviruses.

These viruses are easily spread from person to person or surface to surface. Many of these viruses can live on surfaces for hours, even days.

While the common cold may indeed be familiar, there are some things to know about this ailment that can help you feel better, avoid future colds, or even prevent the spread of the virus to other people.


Once you‘re exposed to a cold-causing virus, cold symptoms typically take 1 to 3 days to appear. The symptoms of a cold rarely appear suddenly.

Nasal symptoms include:

  • congestion
  • sinus pressure
  • runny nose
  • stuffy nose
  • loss of smell or taste
  • sneezing
  • watery nasal secretions
  • postnasal drip or drainage in the back of your throat

Head symptoms include:

  • watery eyes
  • headache
  • sore throat
  • cough
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • Whole body symptoms include:
  • fatigue or general tiredness
  • chills
  • body aches
  • low grade fever below 102°F (38.9°C)
  • chest discomfort
  • difficulty breathing deeply

Symptoms of a cold typically last for 7 to 10 days  Symptoms tend to peak around day 5 and gradually improve.

However, if your symptoms worsen after a week or haven’t disappeared after about 10 days, you may have another condition, and it may be time to see a health care practitioner.

What’s the difference between a cold and the flu?

The common cold and the flu may seem very similar at first. They are indeed both respiratory illnesses and can cause similar symptoms. However, different viruses cause these two conditions, and your symptoms will help you differentiate between the two.

Knowing the difference between cold and flu symptoms can help you decide how to treat your condition — and whether you need to see a health care practitioner.

A distinct difference between the two is how serious they are. Colds rarely cause additional health conditions or problems. The flu, however, can lead to complications like:

  • sinus and ear infections
  • pneumonia
  • sepsis


Diagnosing an uncomplicated cold rarely requires a trip to your doctor’s office. Recognizing the symptoms of a cold is often all you need in order to figure out your diagnosis.

Of course, if your symptoms worsen or last longer than 10 days, make an appointment with your pharmacist. You could actually be dealing with a different health condition, which your health care practitioner will be able to diagnose.

If you have a cold, you can expect the virus to work its way out of your system in about 7 to 10 days.

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