Common cold

Common colds are usually harmless and go away of their own accord. Contrary to popular belief, a common cold is completely different to influenza (flu). This article provides information about the typical symptoms of a common cold and the best ways to recover.

At a glance

  • A common cold is normally harmless and goes away of its own accord.
  • Treatment with medication is not usually necessary.
  • Common colds are generally triggered by viruses. This means that antibiotics are of no use.
  • People sometimes confuse a common cold with the flu.
  • The symptoms of the flu are usually far more severe and come on very quickly.
  • Colds are very common, especially among children.

Note: The information in this article cannot and should not replace a medical consultation and must not be used for self-diagnosis or treatment.

Common cold: woman holding a cup of tea her hand.

What is a common cold?

Contrary to popular belief, a common cold is completely different from actual influenza (flu). Common colds are usually harmless and go away of their own accord. The often annoying symptoms include coughing, a sore throat and a runny nose. In the event of a severe cold, people feel weak and ill.

Common colds generally go away of their own accord after about a week. Some symptoms such as a sore throat and rhinitis can often pass after just a few days. Others, such as coughs, can sometimes take up to three weeks to disappear completely. 

Common colds do not need to be treated with medication. The most that medicines can do is help to alleviate the symptoms somewhat. There is no point in taking antibiotics for a common cold. This is because common colds are generally triggered by viruses and antibiotics only work against bacteria.

What are the typical symptoms of a common cold?

The “common cold” is a generic term for various symptoms that are caused by an upper respiratory tract infection. Common colds generally develop over a few days. The most common symptoms include rhinitis with a blocked or runny nose, sneezing, coughing and a sore throat, although weariness, a slight high temperature, headaches and aching limbs are also possible.

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Common colds are sometimes confused with influenza (flu). However, the symptoms of flu are usually far more severe. The flu is also far rarer than the common cold and is triggered by completely different types of viruses. It furthermore progresses differently: the onset of flu tends to be extremely quick with a very high temperature, chills and aching muscles and limbs, whereas a common cold usually starts gradually.

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The video below explains the differences between a cold and a flu: the different triggers, symptoms, treatment options, and possibilities of a more severe course.

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What causes a common cold?

Common colds are caused by viruses that infect the nasal and throat mucosa. As there are many different cold viruses, people can catch multiple common colds within quick succession. The immune system reacts very similarly to the various viruses. This explains why different cold viruses trigger similar symptoms, which can vary in severity.

How common are colds?

Colds are very common, especially among children. It is far from rare for children who go to school, nursery or a day care center to come down with a cold 6 to 10 times a year. Adults have an average of 2 to 4 colds per year, usually in the colder months.

Average number of cases of common cold per year: children: 6 to 10; adults: 2 to 4.

How does a common cold progress?

Common colds are often indicated by a sore or raspy throat. A little later, the nose starts to run and becomes swollen. The immune system usually fights the infection itself without issue.

Woman with a common cold using a nasal spray.

Even though a common cold can sometimes make people feel particularly ill, the worst symptoms usually pass within a week. Full recovery can sometimes take somewhat longer. This particularly applies to persistent coughs, which can last for more than 3 weeks.

Even if a person has quickly recovered from the common cold itself, bacteria can subsequently spread in the respiratory tract. This can lead to paranasal sinus or middle ear problems, for example. It is also possible for the larynx to be affected, causing hoarseness. In infants, croup can then sometimes ensue.

Serious complications such as pneumonia as a result of a common cold are very rare. In the event of a very high temperature or intensifying symptoms, chest pain, a shortness of breath or problems breathing, medical advice should be sought. This particularly applies to people with chronic respiratory diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

How can a common cold be prevented?

Common colds can be triggered by many different types of viruses. As a result, people who have recovered from a cold are not protected from catching another one. The immune system must separately learn to fight each unknown pathogen. This also explains why no vaccination against cold viruses is within sight.

The best way to avoid colds is for people to protect themselves against infection. Cold viruses spread through droplets, which are distributed in the air by sneezing or coughing, for example. These viral droplets can also land on door handles, keyboards and grab rails on public transport. If these are touched, the viruses get onto the hands, from where they can be easily transferred to the nose or mouth.

Important: People who want to protect themselves against common colds should avoid touching their face. Frequent hand washing with normal soap can also reduce the risk of infection.

People can also become infected if they come into contact with things that others with a cold have touched with their mouth or nose. This includes glasses and cups, but also, and above all, used tissues. As a result, used tissues should be disposed of directly and not left lying around.

Vitamin C and echinacea (remedies containing coneflower extracts) are sometimes recommended for preventing colds. Some people start taking these remedies several weeks before the cold season begins. However, their protective effect is actually very limited.

How is a common cold diagnosed?

No special investigations are required to diagnose a common cold. Often, doctors simply need to ask about the typical symptoms and take a look at the throat.

As colds are very common and have typical symptoms, it is unlikely for these to be an indication of another illness. If, despite this, it is suspected that the symptoms are caused by influenza or something more serious, a nasal and throat swab can provide clarity.

How is common cold treated?

At present, it is not possible to specifically fight a common cold with medication. It is also hard to shorten the duration of a cold. This is due to the large number of different viruses that cause colds. However, there are several remedies that can alleviate some of the symptoms. These include painkillers such as ibuprofen and paracetamol, but also decongestive nasal sprays for short-term use.

Antibiotics are usually not suitable for treating common colds. Due to their potential side effects, they should only be taken if bacterial pathogens have led to complications, e.g. inflamed paranasal sinuses.

Although remedies containing zinc, vitamin C or echinacea extracts are often recommended for treating colds, the advantages and disadvantages of these have not currently been reliably assessed. Either few studies are available on the remedies or the results are contradictive. 

Woman with a common cold inhales water to unblock her respiratory pathways. There is a box of paper towels on the table next to her.

Honey and herbal medicines that contain extracts of geranium or primrose root, thyme, eucalyptus or ivy leaves may help to alleviate coughs.

More information about common colds and on how you can alleviate rhinitis and coughs can be found at

In cooperation with the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (Institut für Qualität und Wirtschaftlichkeit im Gesundheitswesen) (IQWiG).

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