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A head cold or common cold is a viral infection of the nose and throat. It is usually a mild illness, but its symptoms can have a significant impact on everyday activities.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average adult experiences two to three colds every year, and children may experience more.
This article looks at the symptoms of a head cold as well as a range of home remedies available to help manage its symptoms.
Head colds can closely resemble other conditions, including chest colds and sinus infections. However, there are some significant differences.
A head cold occurs when a viral infection causes symptoms primarily in the head, such as a stuffy nose or a headache. It differs from a chest cold because of the location of the symptoms. Chest colds cause symptoms including chest congestion and coughing.
Sinus infections share many of the same symptoms as head colds, but their causes are usually different. Sinus infections are mostly caused by bacterial infections, although sometimes a sinus infection can be caused by a virus.
Several types of viruses can cause a head cold, including:
- human metapneumovirus (HMPV)
- human parainfluenza virus (HPIV)
- respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
Head colds are transmitted when an infected person sneezes or coughs, projecting droplets infected with the virus into the air or onto people around them.
It is possible to catch a head cold by coming into contact with surfaces or things that someone with the virus previously touched. The virus can enter the body through a person’s eyes, mouth, or nose.
Although anyone can get a head cold, and most people will experience many colds in their lifetime, some factors increase the risk of getting sick. These include:
- having a weakened immune system
- being under the age of 6
- the season, as colds are more common in fall and winter
- exposure to other people with head colds, particularly schoolchildren
Symptoms of a head cold begin to appear within 3 days of exposure to rhinovirus or another cold-causing virus. These signs and symptoms vary between individuals and include:
- malaise, or a general feeling of being unwell
- sore throat
- runny nose
- stuffy nose
- body aches
- low-grade fever
Most people recover from a head cold in 7-10 days, but symptoms may last longer in some cases.
Most people will recover from a head cold without experiencing any complications. When complications do arise, they include:
- Asthma attack: In those with asthma, a cold may trigger an asthma attack.
- Acute sinusitis: A head cold that does not resolve can eventually contribute to inflammation and infection of the sinuses, a condition known as sinusitis.
- Ear infection (otitis media): If the virus gets into the area behind the eardrum, it can lead to earaches and a green or yellow discharge from the nose.
- Other infections: Some people, especially children and individuals with weakened immune systems, can develop secondary infections following a head cold. Typical secondary infections associated with a head cold include strep throat, pneumonia, and croup, which a doctor must treat.
As a head cold is caused by a viral infection, antibiotics are not an effective treatment. Instead, treatment aims to manage the symptoms and reduce discomfort.
Some common home remedies for a head cold include:
- Rest: Resting helps the body heal. Staying home from work or school also reduces the risk of transmitting the virus to others.
- Hydration: Staying hydrated helps loosen congestion in the nose and sinuses while soothing the throat. Water and diluted juice are good options to stay hydrated. Warm liquids, such as teas, broths, and soups, may be especially beneficial. A person should avoid caffeine and alcohol until fully recovered.
- Saltwater gargle: To soothe a sore throat, a person can mix a 1/2 teaspoon of salt with 8 ounces of warm water and use as a gargle.
- Pain relievers: A headache, sore throat, and fever may be relieved with over-the-counter medications. Some of these are also available for purchase online, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Always follow the instructions on the packet, especially if giving medications to children.
- Vaporizers or humidifiers: These devices help add moisture to the air, which may ease coughing and congestion. Using a vaporizer or humidifier at night might encourage a good night’s sleep. Vaporizers and humidifiers should be cleaned daily to discourage the growth of microbes and mold. A range of humidifiers available for purchase online.
- Nasal sprays: Saline nasal sprays can loosen mucus in the nose and are suitable for use by both children and adults. Adults may use decongestant nasal sprays for 3 to 5 days. However, people should avoid prolonged use of decongestant sprays. A range of nasal sprays are available for purchase online.
- Supplements: Many people take supplements to prevent or treat a head cold. The most popular supplements used include vitamin C, Echinacea, and zinc. However, there is limited evidence on whether taking supplements reduces symptoms.
It is not possible to vaccinate against a head cold, but the following steps may help reduce the risk of getting a cold virus:
- Avoid contact with infected people. Maintain a distance with anyone who has a head cold to reduce the risk of catching the virus.
- Wash hands regularly. Thoroughly cleaning the hands with soap and hot water reduces transmission of the virus. An alcohol-based hand sanitizer is also effective.
- Avoid sharing items. To prevent exposure to cold germs, try not to share cups or utensils with others.
- Use disinfectant when family members are sick. Kitchen countertops and bathroom fittings should be cleaned with disinfectant when a family member is sick. Also, it is important to clean children’s toys regularly.
- Sneeze or cough into tissues. Using tissues prevents germs spreading through the air. Throw away used tissues immediately and always wash hands after sneezing and coughing.
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle. Eating a balanced diet, engaging in regular physical activity, reducing stress, and getting an adequate amount of sleep can help the immune system fight off an illness.
- Teach children good hygiene practices. Ask children to sneeze or cough into a tissue, or the bend of their elbow, so they cover their mouths without using their hands. Encourage children to wash their hands thoroughly on a regular basis.
Adults should consult their doctor if they experience any of the following symptoms:
- shortness of breath
- a severe headache, sore throat, cough, or sinus pain
- fever that persists beyond 5 days
Children should receive urgent medical treatment if they have:
- a severe headache, sore throat, cough, or sinus pain
- symptoms that do not improve or get worse
- loss of appetite
- fever of 100.4°F in infants under 12 weeks
- fever for more than 2 days in children of any age
Although there is no cure for a head cold, there are several home remedies that can help manage symptoms and reduce discomfort. To avoid getting a cold, a person can take steps to limit exposure to cold-causing viruses.
People with a head cold can expect to recover within 7-10 days. Individuals who experience severe or persistent head cold symptoms should see their doctor.