What is the common cold? When do antibiotics work?
The common cold is caused by a virus. And because it is caused by a virus, antibiotics won’t help you feel better, because antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses. Using antibiotics when they are not needed could cause more harm, including side effects and antibiotic resistance.
The common cold is a viral infection of the nose and throat. It can quickly spread from one person to another. On average, adults get from two to three colds each year. A cold is the most frequent reason why children miss school.
More than 200 types of viruses cause colds, but the most common is the rhinovirus. These viruses are spread by skin-to-skin contact, kissing, sharing drinks, and touching contaminated surfaces. The virus also spreads when an infected person sneezes or coughs, putting the virus in the air.
Prevention practices can help you to avoid catching a cold. But if you do get ill, antibiotics aren’t a cure, even if you’re concerned about developing a second infection.
That’s because antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses. Taking them when you don’t need them contributes to a serious problem: antibiotic resistance.
What are the symptoms of the common cold?
A cold usually starts with clear, runny mucus in the nose. It’s your body’s way of washing away germs from the nose and sinuses.
Over the next few days, the mucus might turn yellow or green. This is normal. It does not mean you have an infection that requires an antibiotic.
Other symptoms include:
- Stuffy nose
- Sore throat
- Post-nasal drip, which happens when mucus runs down your throat
- Watery eyes
- Mild headache
- Mild body aches
Symptoms generally peak in up to three days and can last up to two weeks.
What are the risk factors?
You’ve probably noticed that colds are more frequent in colder months. People spend more time indoors in confined spaces, such as home, school and the office. There’s a higher risk for exposure.
Another risk factor is age. Infants and young children are at a higher risk.
If you have a weakened immune system due to a medical condition or a drug, you’re also at a higher risk.
When do you see a healthcare provider?
Seek medical care if symptoms last more than 10 days and do not improve, or if you have severe or unusual symptoms.
If a child younger than 3 months old develops a fever, call your healthcare professional immediately.
What can you do to feel better?
Colds usually get better on their own. Your healthcare provider or pharmacist can recommend over-the-counter medications for your symptoms. Use the medicine as directed and follow the age guidelines. Children under a certain age should not take many of the available over-the-counter products.
Remember, antibiotics — which kill bacteria — will not cure the common cold, which is caused by viruses. Antibiotics could lead to unpleasant side effects, unnecessary costs and a potentially life-threatening illness with severe diarrhea known as Clostridium difficile infection.
How do you prevent the common cold?
- Wash your hands often. Either soap and water or alcohol-based hand gels are effective.
- Avoid close contact with those who have upper respiratory infections.
- Cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing, so you don’t infect others.
- Wipe down common touched surfaces (phones, door handles, etc.)
- Avoid touching your nose, mouth, and eyes if you haven’t recently cleaned your hands.
- Choosing Wisely: Colds, flu, and other respiratory illnesses in adults (PDF)
- Choosing Wisely: Antibiotics for a sore throat, cough, or runny nose (PDF)
- CDC: Common Cold and Runny Nose