Common Colds: 12 Signs and Symptoms Explained

common cold symptoms

What is the common cold?

The common cold and the flu are both respiratory illnesses that share similar symptoms. However, different viruses can cause the two conditions.

The common cold is also medically known as a viral upper respiratory tract infection (nose, sinuses, voice box, and throat).

It can be caused by several kinds of viruses. The rhinovirus the most common virus that causes colds. It can be attributed to causing approximately 30% – 40% of all adult colds.

Since there are many other different viruses that can cause colds and new cold viruses also develop, the human body has not built up any resistance against them. This makes colds a frequent and recurring health problem in the world.

Colds are more common in the fall and winter, but anyone can get them any time of year. On average adults can catch the cold 2-3 times a year. Children can have more episodes

Many common colds resolve after 7-10 days. Others may recover quickly and others may experience prolonged cold symptoms. These conditions depend upon the kind of virus involved, immune system response and if there are other underlying health issues that may worsen the cold.

How does the common cold spread?

The common cold is contagious.

Person to person transmission occurs when a healthy person comes to direct contact or there is a hand to hand interaction with an infected person. The virus can be spread through handshaking and touching an infected surface and then touching the eyes, nose or mouth. A cold virus can live on frequently touched objects for several hours.

Colds are also spread by inhaling the virus that has been released into the air through coughing or sneezing.

It can be contagious anytime between one to two days before the symptoms begin up until the symptoms disappear. However, it is typically most contagious during the second to the third day of the illness.

Signs and Symptoms of the Common Cold

Common cold symptoms typically begin about two to three days after the body becomes infected with a cold virus. This may vary though depending on the kind of cold virus.

The short period before symptoms appear is called the incubation period. Symptoms are frequently gone in seven to ten days, although they can last from two to 14 days.

Signs and symptoms of the common cold may also vary depending on the kind of virus that is responsible for the infection. The signs and symptoms may include:

1. Sore throat

A sore throat is often the first sign of a cold. 

Sore throats produce pain, scratchiness, irritation and difficulty in swallowing.

Cold sore throats are often confused with strep throat. Strep throat is another cause for sore throats. However, this is more severe than sore throats caused by the common cold and would require medical attention to prevent complications.

Both cold sore throat and strep throat have very similar symptoms but also differ in several ways. For example, colds are caused by viruses while a strep throat is caused by bacteria called Streptococcus pyogenes.

A sore throat caused by colds usually does not require any medication. This type of sore throat gets better or goes away after the first day or two.  

Although there are no cures for sore throats caused by colds, there are several ways of relieving the discomfort brought by them. Drinking warm liquids, over the counter medicines, and gargling warm saltwater can help alleviates some of the pain.

2. Watery eyes

Watery eyes are another common symptom of the common cold.  Colds bring sneezing, coughing, and fever that can negatively affect the eyes. Eyes can become very dry and tired.

The glands under the eyes produce tears that contain water and salt to keep the eyes lubricated. During an illness, like the common cold, these tear ducts produce more tears to address dry eyes caused by colds. The excess tears then spill over to the tear ducts

It is not uncommon to gain an eye infection while feeling under the weather. The virus that causes the common colds can also lead to the onset of viral conjunctivitis. This is characterized by redness, itching, sensitivity to light, swelling and watery eyes.

Watery eyes often resolve by themselves without the need for treatments. It should be noted, however, that watery eyes can sometimes become a chronic condition. Consult with a doctor if there is a prolonged episode and if it is accompanied by other symptoms.

3. Runny Nose

A runny nose refers to a discharge of fluids from the nasal passages. It is often watery and clear but may become thicker and may turn yellow or green after a few days.

A runny nose is one of the most constant symptoms of a common cold. Normally, mucus from the nose goes unnoticed. It mixes with saliva and drips down the back of the throat. When a cold virus enters the body, it irritates and inflames the lining of the nose and sinuses or air-filled pockets around the face, and the nose is triggered to make a lot of clear mucus. The excess mucus comes out of the nostrils, down the back of your throat or both.

Further medical treatment is not necessary for a runny nose. Drinking plenty of fluids, especially hot drinks, and resting as much as possible are highly advised.

4. Sneezing

Sneezing occurs when the mucous membranes of the nose become irritated.

When a cold virus infects and irritates the nasal passages, this sets off the “sneeze center” which is located in the lower part of the brain stem. Signals are then sent to the throat, eyes, and mouth.  Chest muscles contract while the throat muscles relax. This results in air, along with saliva and mucus, to be expelled from the mouth and nose. This is sneezing.

In addition to that, the body’s immune system releases its own inflammatory chemicals, such as histamine. Once released, the histamine makes the blood vessels to dilate and the mucus glands start to secrete fluid. The resulting irritation also causes sneezing.

5. Cough

Coughs are usually the last symptom of the common cold to go away. It can last for one to three weeks.

Coughing is a natural reflex that the body makes to protect the lungs This reflex clears pathogens, allergens and mucus from the throats and upper airway, much as sneezing clears them from the nose. It can help keep away infections.

The cold virus attacks the body through the nasal linings. The body’s immune response is to release inflammatory chemicals to help fight the infection. These chemicals, albeit playing important roles in fighting the cold virus, can also cause coughing.

6. Fatigue

A common cold can often start with symptoms of feeling tired.

The body feels extra tired as a way to force it to slow down and allow the body to do its job of healing. Fatigue occurs as a result of the body fighting off the infection. It needs as much energy as possible. If energy is not conserved and diverted, it becomes an extra challenge for the immune system to gather the resources it needs to resolve the infection.

During an illness like the common cold, the body falls into adaptive behavioral changes known as sickness behavior.

Sickness behavior is a set of behaviors that often accompanies some illness like the common cold. It is stirred by the body’s response to an infection. The same chemicals that help the immune system fight the invading viruses also tells the body to slow down. Aside from fatigue, loss of appetite, extreme tiredness, social withdrawal, and crankiness are also linked with sickness behavior.

7. Body pains

Colds are caused by viral infections. When infections occur within the body, the immune system sends white blood cells to deal with the infection. This results in inflammation which in turn can leave the muscles in the body ache.

Body pains due to the common cold are not as severe as that of flu-related body pain. It is also more commonly experienced with the flu but it still can happen with the common cold. The body pains are often mild and do not need any further medical attention.

Plenty of rest and warm baths can soothe aching muscles. A heating pad or a heated water bottle can also be used alternatively to help relieve some discomfort.

8. Malaise

Malaise is one of the symptoms of the common cold that is often mistaken for fatigue which is another symptom of the illness.

To help differentiate the two, malaise is defined as an overall feeling of discomfort and lack of well-being. While fatigue is the feeling of extreme tiredness even after getting plenty of rest and sleep.

Although quite different, these two symptoms go hand in hand as early indications that a person is sick or is about to get sick.

Malaise is not an illness itself. Therefore, further treatment is not required for it. However, if the underlying cause, in this case, the common cold, gets worse then a trip to the doctor would be required.

9. Low-grade fever

To fight off infection, the body will often increase its core temperature, producing fever. This increase in temperature increases the body’s metabolic rate. Fever is one of the body’s main response to any infection.

With the common cold, high fevers are uncommon symptoms. There are some who experience a low-grade fever.

Low-grade fever means that the body’s core temperature is slightly elevated. It ranges between 98.7°F and 100°F (37°C and 37.8°C). Low-grade fevers are nothing to worry about.  But if the fever goes up to 100.4°F (38°C), there might be another underlying cause and it would be best to contact a doctor.

10. Loss of smell

A stuffy nose, inflammation or blockage due to a cold can lead to a loss of smell. This partial or total loss of smell is also known as anosmia.

Anosmia is a temporary condition that can be brought about by common illnesses like the common cold, flu, and allergies. The linings in the nose become irritated that they swell and cause some blockage. This prevents odors from getting to the top of the nose where signals can be sent to the brain.

In common colds, anosmia will go away on its own as the body gets ahold of the infection and slowly gets well.

Loss of interest in eating can become a complication to anosmia because of the close link between the senses of smell and taste.

11. Swollen lymph nodes

The lymph nodes play an important role in the immune system’s response to a virus infection. They produce infection-fighting cells that attack the invading virus. Lymph nodes are located in various parts of the body. They can be found in the neck, armpits and groin area.

During sickness, the lymph nodes can become inflamed, tender and painful.  They act like a military checkpoint that stops any passing bacteria, virus or damaged cells. The accumulated debris is attacked by the immune cells stored in the nodes. The swelling is a result of the lymph nodes’ immune cell activity.

Since colds are an infection of the respiratory tract, the nodes in the neck are most likely to swell. This is because the location of the swelling often relates to the affected area.

Swollen lymph nodes may sometimes cause sharp pain when sudden or strain movements are done like sharply turning the neck or eating foods that are difficult to chew.

12. Sinus pressure

The cold virus invades membranes of the nasal passages and the sinuses. This makes them inflamed and creates an overproduction of mucus. The excess mucus clogs up the sinuses. This results in sinus pain and pressure.

Colds don’t usually cause sinus infections but the constant touching of the nose can become a way for bacteria to get in and start multiplying.

There is no treatment for this since antibiotics are ineffective against the cold virus. The pain and pressure will slowly ease up as the cold goes away.

There are, however, several home remedies that can ease the sinus pressure discomfort. Over the counter medicines like decongestants can also help