What’s Common in Common Colds?

Written by:

James Windford R. Gelaga MD, DPPS,DPSAAI

Asthma, Allergy & Immunology

A common cold is a mild infection of your upper respiratory tract which includes your nose and throat. Colds are probably the most common illness. Everyone is at risk for the common cold. Adults have an average of 2 - 4 colds per year while children have 6 - 10 colds a year. This is due to their immature immune systems and to the close physical contact with other children at school or daycare.

In the Philippines, colds are more common during rainy seasons and the last quarter of the year and it may be attributed to the fact that more people stay indoors and plenty of holidays and celebrations during this time. In addition, in cold, dry weather, the nasal passages become drier and more vulnerable to infection.

The common cold is highly contagious and very easily spread to others. It's often spread through airborne droplets that are coughed or sneezed by a sick person. The droplets can be inhaled or spread through direct contact with contaminated surfaces.

Symptoms of a cold usually peak within 2 to 3 days and can include: Sneezing, watery eyes, sore throat, stuffy nose, rhinorrhea, coughing, body aches and fever

When viruses that cause colds first infect the nose and sinuses, the nose makes clear mucus which is a defense mechanism of our body. This helps wash the viruses from the nose and sinuses. Some symptoms, especially runny or stuffy nose and cough, can last for up to 10 to 14 days. Those symptoms should improve over time.

A cold and the flu (Influenza) are two different illnesses. A cold is relatively harmless and usually clears up by itself, although sometimes it may lead to a secondary infection, such as an ear infection. However, the flu can lead to complications, such as pneumonia and even death. What may seem like a cold, could be the flu.

Please see a doctor for any symptom that is severe or concerning such as but not limited to:

  • Troubled or fast breathing
  • Fever that lasts longer than 4 days
  • Symptoms that last more than 10 days without improvement
  • Dehydration

Currently, there is no medicine available to cure or shorten the duration of the common cold. However, there are some treatments that may help to relieve symptoms of colds.

Over-the-counter cold medicines, such as decongestants and antihistamines are readily available. Oral decongestants, such as phenylpropanolamine and phenylephrine, relieve congestion by reducing swelling, inflammation, and mucus formation within the nasal passages. They have no other effect on symptoms such as a runny nose or sneezing.

On the other hand, antihistamines work by preventing the effects of a substance called histamine, which is produced by the body. Histamine can cause itching, sneezing, runny nose, and watery eyes. Antihistamines help dry up nasal secretions and suppress coughing.

Therefore the combination antihistamine and decongestant offers a symptomatic relief of nasal congestion, sneezing, and runny nose caused by colds.

Some of these combinations are available only with your doctor's prescription. Others are available without a prescription; however, your doctor may have special instructions on the proper dose of the medicine for your medical condition.

Do not give any over-the-counter cough and cold medicine to a baby or child under 2 years of age unless prescribed by your doctor. Using these medicines in very young children might cause serious or possibly life-threatening side effects.

Other measures that help improves symptoms of colds are the following:

  • Rest
  • Increased fluid intake
  • Pain relievers for headache or fever
  • Warm, salt water gargling for sore throat
  • Petroleum jelly for raw, chapped skin around the nose and lips

Because colds are caused by viruses, antibiotics don't work. Antibiotics are only effective when given to treat bacterial infections.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases (NCEZID), Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion (DHQP)