Common Cold

Medically reviewed by Carina Fung, PharmD, BCPPS

Common cold diagnosis

Generally, a healthcare provider can diagnose whether you or your child has the common cold based on the symptoms present.

If your provider suspects you of having a bacterial infection (such as strep throat) or another condition, he or she may order a throat swab or culture, a chest X-ray, or another type of test to rule out any other causes of your symptoms. It is possible to have both the cold, which is a viral infection, and another bacterial infection at the same time.

Cold or flu?

Both the flu and the common cold15 are viral respiratory illnesses (meaning they infect the nose and throat). However, the two illnesses are caused by different viruses.

The symptoms of a cold and the flu are often very similar. This can make it difficult to tell which illness you have based on symptoms alone.

Generally, the flu is often worse than the common cold and has much more intense symptoms. The cold, though uncomfortable, is much more mild.

Colds very rarely lead to serious infections (like pneumonia or bacterial infections) that can lead to hospitalization. The flu, on the other hand, can present a multitude of serious associated complications.

If you have the symptoms of a cold, you likely won’t feel the need to visit your healthcare provider. You should schedule a visit, however, if your symptoms are severe or you believe you may have the flu.

Cold or allergy?

Symptoms of the common cold can sometimes be easily confused with those associated with allergies16. Remember that if you suspect you or your child to have a cold—or any other type of illness—it’s best to see your provider to receive the proper diagnosis and treatment.

Stages of the common cold

Common cold infection

You will generally begin to feel the symptoms of a cold between 1–3 days after catching the virus. These symptoms usually begin with a tingly or scratchy throat, body aches, and fatigue.

This is often followed by sneezing, congestion, coughing, and malaise (the feeling of being tired or unwell). When these symptoms are present, you are the most contagious.

You remain contagious between 5–7 days after the first symptoms of a cold appear. You should stay at home for the entirety of your illness. This will prevent you from spreading the infection to others, and will allow you to get some much-needed recovery time.

Common cold recovery

Once you begin to feel the symptoms of a cold, you will generally continue to feel ill for about 3 days. After this, the worst of the infection is over. However, you may feel congested or have a runny nose for more than a week after your cold is gone.

For some people, it can take 7–10 days to fully recover from a cold.

Except in newborns and infants with underlying lung and heart conditions, colds themselves are not dangerous. They usually go away on their own without requiring any special medicine.

Unfortunately, colds wear down your body's resistance, making you more susceptible to bacterial infections. It’s important to get more rest than normal during a cold – even after the worst of your symptoms are gone – in order to allow yourself to fully recover.

Is the common cold contagious?

The common cold is contagious and can be spread from person-to-person through particles in the air, on your hands, or on surfaces touched by an infected person.

While most contagious when symptoms are present, the common cold can be spread after infection and before the onset of symptoms.

Preventing the common cold

You can take a number of precautions to avoid catching a cold (and to help slow the spread of the virus, if you do catch it):

  • Maintain good hygiene: Make sure that you and your child wash your hands with warm, soapy water after coughing or sneezing, and before preparing food or eating. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Stay at home when you are sick, and keep children out of school, daycare, or other group activities if they have a cold.
  • Avoid close contact: Do not hug, kiss, or shake hands with others when either of you are sick.
  • Practice respiratory etiquette: Cover your nose and mouth with your elbow (not your hand) when coughing or sneezing. Always use a tissue when possible.
  • Disinfect surfaces: Disinfect kitchen and bathroom surfaces and frequently used objects (such as toys and doorknobs), especially when you or your family members are sick.
  • Don’t share drinking glasses, utensils, or food with people close to you when either of you are sick.
  • Avoid colds: Avoid close contact with anyone who is sick with the common cold virus.
  • Take care of yourself: Eating well, sleeping sufficiently, and getting exercise may help keep you from catching a cold.

Disclaimer: The information on this site is generalized and is not medical advice. It is intended to supplement, not substitute for, the expertise and judgment of your healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard seeking advice or delay in seeking treatment because of something you have read on our site. RxSaver makes no warranty as to the accuracy, reliability or completeness of this information.

If you are in crisis or you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately.