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What is a cold?

The common cold is an upper respiratory infection (URI) that boasts a handful of symptoms caused by inflammation of part, or all, of the upper airway (nasal passages, throat, larynx and upper trachea).

Infection results from one of 200 viral strains from six virus families; these are rhinoviruses, coronaviruses, para influenza viruses, adenoviruses, echoviruses, and respiratory syncytial viruses. Colds are viral infections and as such, antibiotics are not an effective form of treatment.

Colds usually last 10 to 14 days with gradual, steady improvement.


  • Nasal stuffiness/congestion
  • Sneezing
  • Scratchy, swollen, or sore throat
  • Cough
  • Hoarseness
  • Headache
  • Malaise
  • Fever of more than 100°F
  • Stuffy head/ears

How is the common cold spread?

The cold is spread by hand-to-hand contact and contact with wet fomites such as mucous, saliva, and aerosolized secretions. This can come in the form of:

  • Kissing
  • Being near a cough or sneeze
  • Touching anything, or anyone, that has come in contact with the virus


Over-the-counter and prescription medications can help you feel better and return you to function at school or work, but no remedy or medication can cure or fully prevent you from becoming ill. 

To learn more about treatment options, see Cold Clinic Medication Information (PDF | 330KB).