The common cold is caused by numerous viruses that lead to a variety of symptoms, most characteristically nasal symptoms. Colds are very contagious, and are frequent in children because they have not built up immunity to many of these viruses. Although you may have heard that people with a cold don't develop a fever while people with the flu do, it isn't quite that straightforward.
The common cold usually causes a runny and stuffy nose, along with sneezing. The first sign often is a sore or scratchy throat. Post-nasal drip can occur and lead to coughing. Coughing also can result from the cold affecting the lungs, often called a chest cold in contrast to a head cold. Other symptoms may include headache, muscle aches, and watery eyes. Coughing and sneezing can cause sleep problems, making the person tired during the day. Symptoms usually develop gradually, and tend to be more severe in children. The virus typically runs its course within a week.
Adults, teenagers and older children with colds usually have no fever or a low fever under 100 F, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). Young children with colds commonly have a fever up to 102 F. For adults, this can help differentiate whether the illness is the flu or a cold, because the flu tends to cause a fever over 100 F in adults as well as children.
The common cold does not have a cure, but you can relieve symptoms. Get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids to help break up mucus. Gargling with warm salt water can relieve a sore throat, as can throat sprays and lozenges. Cough drops and cough medicine also are available, along with medicines to clear nasal congestion. You can reduce fever with acetaminophen (Tylenol) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicine such as ibuprofen (Advil). Children and teens should not take aspirin because it can lead to serious complications.
When to Call the Doctor
Adults should seek medical attention if the illness causes a fever over 102 F, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), and parents should call the pediatrician if a child with a cold develops a fever over 103 F. A doctor also should be consulted if any fever lasts over three days, as the illness may need further treatment, such as an antiviral medicine.
The common cold is very contagious, and children typically come down with these viruses three to eight times a year, according to the NIH. Colds are spread mainly when people's hands touch nasal secretions from an infected person, according to the Merck Manuals. This is common in children because they tend to wipe their noses with their hands, and are not as concerned with washing their hands. You also can catch a cold if you are nearby an infected person who sneezes.