A head cold is an infection of your upper respiratory tract caused by a virus. Any one of 200 viruses can cause the common cold, so you may experience a wide variety of symptoms. There are not as many viruses that cause the flu, which is why there are vaccines against the flu, but not against the common cold.
Symptoms of a head cold usually appear one to three days after exposure. The most common symptoms include sore throat, itchy throat, runny nose, congestion and cough. You may experience fever or body aches, sneezing, watery eyes or mild fatigue.
Most head colds are mild, but they are the leading reason for doctor visits and missed days of school and work. About a billion cases of head and chest colds occur each year in the United States. Colds are more common among children than among adults, because a child’s immune system isn’t fully developed yet. Children tend to get sicker from a head cold than adults, and they develop complications such as ear infections and sinus infections more often than adults do.
An adult should seek medical attention for a fever higher than 102 F. If you have aches, chills, noticeably swollen glands, severe sinus pain or a cough with colored phlegm, call your doctor. For a child, seek medical attention for a fever higher than 103 F or a fever that lasts more than three days. If your child is unusually sleepy, having difficulty breathing or complaining of ear pain, call the doctor right away.
There is no cure for the common cold. The best you can do is to treat the symptoms while your body works to fight off the virus. Rest is very important, especially while you have a fever. Resting allows your body to fight off infection. Drink a lot of fluids, especially water and clear liquids. Fluids help loosen mucus and prevent dehydration. Avoid smoking or second-hand smoke. Gargling with warm salt water may give you some relief from sore throat pain. Over-the-counter cold medicines may help relieve symptoms, but will not bring recovery any faster.
Most adults have two to four head colds a year; most children get six to 10 colds a year. Washing your hands frequently helps stop the spread of germs. Eating healthily, exercising and getting adequate rest can help prevent colds, because they help boost your immune system.