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The Common Cold: Just How Common is it?

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General Practice ( GP ) / Family Medicine
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4 minutes

The term coronavirus refers to a large family of viruses. While COVID-19 is a strain of coronavirus, it may be interesting to know that the coronavirus family can also cause the common cold (WHO 2020).

As its name suggests, the common cold (or upper respiratory tract infection) is a highly prevalent viral infection that can be caused by over 200 types of viruses. It affects the nose, ears and throat (Healthy WA n.d.).

Most cold-causing viruses belong to either the coronavirus or rhinovirus families. As there are so many viruses that can cause a cold, it is possible to have one cold after another from unrelated strains (Healthdirect 2018).

At this stage, it is not considered possible to be immunised against the cold due to the number of viruses that can cause it (Simancas-Racines et al. 2017).

Prevalence of the Common Cold

The cold is considered the most common contagious disease in Australia, the most common reason for being absent from school or work, and the most common reason for seeing a general practitioner (Lung Foundation Australia n.d.).

Adults will often catch two to four colds per year, while children may get as many as five to ten as they lack immunity to many of the cold viruses (Healthdirect 2018).


How Colds Are Spread

Colds spread through droplets in the air from sneezing, coughing or talking, which enter the body through the eyes, mouth or nose. These droplets may also contaminate objects and surfaces (Mayo Clinic 2019).

Viruses can live on hands and surfaces for 24 hours (NHS 2017).

Generally, an individual is contagious from one day before symptoms present and for the next five days of the illness (SA Health 2019).


Risk Factors

The following factors may make you more likely to catch a cold:

  • Age. Children younger than six have generally not built up immunity to many cold viruses yet.
  • Having a weakened immune system.
  • Time of year. People are more likely to catch colds in winter or autumn due to the colder weather bringing people into closer proximity with each other.
  • Smoking.
  • Being exposed to many people in settings such as school, aeroplanes etc.

(SA Health n.d.; Mayo Clinic 2019; Lung Foundation Australia n.d.)

Symptoms of the Common Cold


The onset of symptoms is generally one to three days after exposure to a cold-causing virus. Depending on the person and cold, an individual may experience a combination of the following symptoms:

  • Runny or stuffy nose;
  • Sore throat;
  • Cough;
  • Congestion;
  • Mild body aches;
  • Headache;
  • Sneezing;
  • Red eyes;
  • Swelling of lymph glands;
  • Fever (rare in people over the age of three);
  • Loss of appetite;
  • Nausea and vomiting (occasionally);
  • Generally feeling unwell.

(Mayo Clinic 2019; Better Health Channel 2011; SA Health n.d.)

Thick, yellow or green nasal discharge is common as a cold progresses (Mayo Clinic 2019).


Colds v Flu

Colds are often confused with the flu (influenza), however, they are different illnesses caused by different viruses (Healthdirect 2018).

Flu symptoms are similar but overall more severe than cold symptoms;

  • The onset of symptoms is gradual for colds and quick (within a few hours) for the flu;
  • Colds are unpleasant but most people can still go about their daily lives, however, the flu can make an individual feel too unwell and exhausted to function normally;
  • The flu is a more severe illness overall;
  • There is a vaccination for the flu but not for colds.

(NHS 2017; QLD Health 2017)

Common Cold Treatments

There is no cure or specific treatment for a cold, but symptoms may be managed with the following strategies:

  • Medication to lower fever or ease aches;
  • Rest and sleep;
  • Warm drinks to stay hydrated and ease a sore throat;
  • Nasal drops or spray to ease a blocked nose;
  • Throat lozenges;
  • Keeping warm; and
  • Gargling salt water to ease a sore throat.

(NHS 2017; Better Health Channel 2011)

Antibiotics should not be used for colds as they are only effective against bacterial infections (NHS 2017).

Colds are generally not serious and will resolve on their own within a week to 10 days (Mayo Clinic 2019).


It is difficult to avoid getting a cold, but the best way to reduce the risk is by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and practising good and thorough hand hygiene (Lung Foundation n.d.).

If you have a cold, try to avoid spreading it to others.

  • Perform hand hygiene as required;
  • Use tissues when you sneeze and dispose of them as soon as possible; and
  • Wipe down frequently touched surfaces.

(NHS 2017; SA Health n.d.)


Additional Resources
  • Healthdirect, Cold or Flu? (infographic), https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/cold-or-flu-infographic
  • Healthdirect, Colds and Flu Statistics, https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/colds-and-flu-statistics
  • World Health Organisation, Coronavirus (COVID-19) information, https://www.who.int/health-topics/coronavirus
  • Ausmed, Hand Hygiene Essentials module, https://www.ausmed.com.au/cpd/courses/hand-hygiene-essentials
Multiple Choice Questions Q1. How many viruses can cause the common cold?
  • More than 50.
  • More than 100.
  • More than 200.
  • More than 500.
  • Q2. How many colds would an average adult get every year?
  • None
  • One to two.
  • Two to four.
  • Five to ten.
  • Q3. True or false? The common cold and the flu are caused by unrelated viruses.
  • True
  • False
  • References
    • Better Health Channel 2011, Colds, Better Health Channel, viewed 11 March 2020, https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/colds
    • Healthdirect 2018, Colds and Flu Statistics, Healthdirect, viewed 11 March 2020, https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/colds-and-flu-statistics
    • Healthdirect 2018, Colds and Flu Types, Healthdirect, viewed 11 March 2020, https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/colds-and-flu-types
    • Healthy WA n.d., Common Cold, Healthy WA, viewed 11 March 2020, https://healthywa.wa.gov.au/Articles/A_E/Common-cold
    • Lung Foundation Australia n.d., The Common Cold, Lung Foundation Australia, viewed 11 March 2020, https://lungfoundation.com.au/patients-carers/living-with-a-lung-disease/other-lung-conditions/the-common-cold/
    • Mayo Clinic 2019, Common Cold, Mayo Clinic, viewed 11 March 2020, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/common-cold/symptoms-causes/syc-20351605
    • NHS 2017, Common Cold, NHS, viewed 12 March 2020, https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/common-cold/
    • Queensland Health 2017, What's the Difference Between a Cold and the Flu?, Queensland Health, viewed 12 March 2020, https://www.health.qld.gov.au/news-events/news/difference-between-cold-flu-virus
    • Simancas-Racines, D, Franco, JVA, Guerra, CV, Felix, ML, Hidalgo, R & Martinez-Zapata, M 2017, Vaccines for the Common Cold, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 5, CD002190, viewed 16 March 2020, https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD002190.pub5/full
    • South Australia Health 2019, Common cold - Including Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention, South Australia Health, viewed 12 March 2020, https://www.sahealth.sa.gov.au/common+cold/
    • World Health Organisation 2020, Coronavirus, World Health Organisation, viewed 11 March 2020, https://www.who.int/health-topics/coronavirus


    (Answers: c, c, a)




    Ausmed Editorial Team

    Ausmed’s Editorial team is committed to providing high-quality and thoroughly researched content to our readers, free of any commercial bias or conflict of interest. All articles are developed in consultation with healthcare professionals and peer reviewed where necessary, undergoing a yearly review to ensure all healthcare information is kept up to date. See Educator Profile

    The Common Cold: Just How Common is it?
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    4 minutes
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