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All you need to know about the common cold

All you need to know about the common cold

Doctors share their insights on how to keep the common cold at bay and give tips on what to do if you are down with the bug
Common cold is caused by viruses such as rhinoviruses and adeno coronaviruses causing symptoms like runny nose, cough, sore throat and more.
Photo by Suyash Chandra

There is barely anyone who hasn’t contracted the common cold. However, its widespread occurrence doesn’t guarantee widespread awareness about it. Runny nose, watery eyes, sneeze and a heavy head can throw someone’s daily activities out of gear and affect productivity. Worse, it is contagious and makes several persons sick, thanks to the invisible viruses behind it.

Dr Hemalata Arora, senior consultant, internal medicine and infectious diseases, Nanavati Max Superspeciality hospital, Mumbai, describes the common cold as a viral infection which is caused by one of the 200 to 300 common cold-causing viruses like rhinoviruses and adeno coronaviruses. “A large number of viruses is the reason why one doesn’t get immune to it,” she says.


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How is the common cold different from the flu or covid?

A common cold is often confused with influenza and other viral fevers like Covid-19 caused by the SARS-CoV2 virus. Differentiating between the common cold and other viral infections, Dr Arora says, “typically there isn’t much fever when one suffers from the common cold. People generally have a mild cough and sore throat. Sometimes these symptoms can progress into a sinus infection or fever. Typically, a common cold doesn’t begin with a fever.”

She adds that symptoms like body aches, weakness and fatigue seen in a covid infection or the flu are usually not associated with the common cold.

When should one consult a doctor?

According to Dr Chitralekha Nayak, consultant physician, Healthway Hospitals, Goa, a slight 99-degree Fahrenheit fever that subsides the next day isn’t a cause of worry, but if the person presents with fever beyond the second or third day, it is a warning sign, and the person must be investigated for other conditions.

Adding further to the red flags to watch out for, she says, “when someone has too much cough from the onset of illness, or if the person is asthmatic and starts wheezing with a low-grade fever from day one, he/she must consult a doctor. Severe throat pain, redness of the throat, difficulty swallowing and discharge from the nose with a forehead headache are indicators of a severe form of sinusitis,” says Dr Nayak.

Dr Arora says that viruses like rhinovirus and adenovirus are the causes of the common cold and exposure to someone with it is the pathway through which the infection is transmitted.

Hold back the laughter — it could lead to spread

She also adds that the chance of contracting the infection increases manifold when the infected person is in proximity (within two metres) and coughs or laughs without covering his/her mouth and nose. The infection can also be transmitted through exposure to contaminated surfaces or sharing items like utensils that are used by the infected person.


  • Runny nose
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • Headache


Dr Nayak recommends wearing a mask, washing hands, keeping a two-metre distance from the infected person and sterilising surfaces contaminated by the infected person as ways of preventing the infection. “If you have the infection, stay home for four to five days after the infectivity period is over, avoid crowds and ensure that you sneeze into a handkerchief,” she says.

She also recommends reducing dust exposure and avoiding cold foods, particularly those with citric acid in the evening if a person is prone to frequent colds. “Eating curd and items containing citric acid in the evening triggers an acid reflux which can give rise to an itchy throat and other allergic symptoms.”

What are the causes of recurrent cold among children?

Dr Nayak says that it is common for children to have recurrent colds. “This can be due to two reasons: one – if they have allergic rhinitis, which is an allergic inflammation of the nose; two – a deviation in the septum or a polyp inside the nose which can cause recurrent sinus infections as the viruses will penetrate the inflamed area faster. In this case, the infection can subsequently turn into a secondary bacterial infection,” she says. She recommends consulting an ENT doctor who will look for any structural problems.

According to Dr Haridarshan GJ, associate consultant, paediatrics, Apollo Hospital, Sheshadripuram, children when at school are always at risk of getting recurrent infections because if the class is overcrowded, they are exposed to other kids.

Dr Haridarshan says that over-the-counter medication is mostly not recommended in children unless the child has a lot of nasal congestion and high fever. However, if the child is less than six months, over-the-counter medication is not advisable at all because the side effects are more compared to the benefits.

How is the common cold treated?

Dr Nayak says that people who take over-the-counter cough suppressants, anti-allergic medications or paracetamol will usually recover by day two or three. These people are administered antiviral or antibacterial medications based on their symptoms.

Dr Arora says that home remedies are usually good enough – like having warm liquids throughout the day, resting for one or two days and consuming kadha (a herbal drink) and honey-flavoured tea for throat pain and cough.

Who is more vulnerable?

According to Dr Nayak, adults with conditions like diabetes, asthma, cancer, people chronically exposed to dust and smoke, those with frequent dust allergies and people who are chronic smokers are susceptible to frequent colds. Smoke in the form of agarbattis (incense sticks) in the house, can cause recurrent cold in some people.

“Having a lower immunity can make one more predisposed to contracting the infection. Being under stress, not sleeping well and poor nutrition can be factors that lower immunity,” says Nayak.

Does cold weather play spoilsport?

According to Dr Nayak, there could be a climatic reason behind the common cold. A sudden shift in weather, from hot to very cold, could be a trigger. During sudden rains, the virus will be suspended in the air in the form of aerosols which people could inhale. While many viruses that cause swine flu and influenza are associated with a change in weather, covid is never influenced by it.

Protecting your baby from contracting a cold

Dr Haridarshan encourages breastfeeding even when the mother has a cold, as her body will be producing antibodies; that will act as a natural source of immunity for the child. However, he recommends wearing a mask, maintaining hygiene, sanitising and sterilising the articles that the baby will potentially come in contact with.


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