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Common Cold

Common Cold Symptoms

The clinical symptoms of the common cold generally occur within 24-72 hours of infection, and typically begin with runny nose and a sore or "scratchy" throat. Sore throat symptoms usually subside by the 2nd or 3rd day of infection, after which nasal symptoms typically become the most bothersome (Turner 2009; Turner 2011; Hayden 2011; Nussenbaum 2010). Three out of every 10 people with the common cold may develop an unproductive cough, often beginning after the onset of nasal symptoms, and persisting as the cold resolves (Turner 2009; Turner 2011; Hayden 2011; Nussenbaum 2010). As a whole, these symptoms may last anywhere from 2 to 14 days, but most people recover within 7 to 10 days. Nasal symptoms lasting longer than 2 weeks may be due to seasonal allergies rather than the common cold (NIAID 2011b).

Occasionally, common cold infections are associated with other complications such as ear and/or sinus infection. The common cold has also been known to exacerbate certain diseases of the upper respiratory tract such as asthma, bronchitis, cystic fibrosis, and COPD. Patients who experience high fever, intense sinus pain, severely swollen glands, and/or cough that produces mucus (i.e., productive cough) may have a more serious illness, and should notify their health care provider immediately (NIAID 2011b; Turner 2011; Roxas 2007d; Niespodziana 2012).

Common Cold vs. The Flu: Comparison of Characteristics

Feature

Colds

Flu

Etiological Agent

>200 viral strains; rhinovirus most common

3 strains of influenza virus: influenza A, B, and C

Site of Infection

Upper respiratory tract

Entire respiratory system

Symptom Onset

Gradual: 1-3 days

Sudden: within a few hours

Fever, chills

Occasional, low grade (<101° F)

 

Characteristic, higher (>101° F),

lasting 2-4 days

Headache

Infrequent, usually mild

Characteristic, more severe

General aches, pains

Mild, if any

Characteristic, often severe and affecting the entire body

Sore throat

Common, usually mild

Sometimes present

Cough, chest congestion

Common; mild-to-moderate, with hacking, productive cough

Common; potentially severe dry, non-productive cough

Runny, stuffy nose

Very common, accompanied by bouts of sneezing

Sometimes present

Fatigue, weakness

Mild, if any

Usual, may be severe and last 2-3 weeks

Extreme exhaustion

Rarely

Frequent, usually in early stages of illness

Season

Year around, peaks in winter months

Most cases between November and February

Antibiotics helpful?

No, unless secondary bacterial infection develops

No, unless secondary bacterial infection develops

(Roxas 2007; MD Consult 2012c; Utah Dept. Health 2010; CDC 2011; Oklahoma State Dept. of Health 2011)