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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, and involves symptoms in the head, such as a stuffed, runny nose and watery eyes.

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 and a range of home remedies to help a person manage symptoms.

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Viruses cause head colds. They are not serious and usually go away on their own. However, they can cause symptoms that many people find uncomfortable.

Head colds can closely resemble other conditions, including chest colds and sinus infections. However, there are some significant differences.

Head cold vs. sinus infection

A head cold occurs when a viral infection causes symptoms primarily in the head, such as a stuffy nose or a headache.

If fluid builds up in the sinuses, hollow spaces around the nose, bacteria can grow there, causing a sinus infection.

Sinus infections share many of the same symptoms as head colds, including a runny nose and cough. Sinus infections can also cause facial pain or pressure.

Like head colds, viruses can cause sinus infections.

Learn how to distinguish between a cold and a sinus infection here.

Head cold vs. chest cold

A head cold happens when the symptoms affect the head, including the nose or throat.

A chest cold, or acute bronchitis, happens when the airways swell and mucus builds up in the lungs. When this occurs, a person often develops a loose, or chesty cough that typically involves coughing up some of the mucus. Coughing in this way helps help clear the airways.

A chest cold usually goes away within 3 weeks.

Viruses cause head colds and chest colds. A head cold can develop into a chest cold.

Symptoms of head and chest colds can vary slightly:

Common head cold symptomsCommon chest cold symptoms
coughing, runny nose, and sneezingcoughing often with mucus
sore throatsore throat
body achesbody aches, including chest soreness

However, a person may experience a mixture of these symptoms.

Learn how to get rid of mucus in the chest here.

Several types of viruses can cause a head cold, including:

Head colds are very contagious. When a person with a head cold sneezes or coughs, droplets that contain the virus can travel through the air and reach other people who could contract the virus.

It is possible to develop a head cold after 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.

Learn the differences between the common cold and COVID-19 here.

Symptoms of a head cold begin to appear between 1 and 3 days after exposure to rhinovirus or another cold-causing virus. These signs and symptoms vary between individuals and include:

Some people find most symptoms ease within 1 week. However, some people may experience symptoms for longer.

Learn about how to get rid of a cold quickly here.

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 5
  • smoking
  • the season, as colds are more common in fall and winter
  • exposure to other people with head colds, particularly schoolchildren

Learn whether cold weather can cause a cold here.

Most people will recover from a head cold without experiencing any complications. When complications do arise, they include:

  • Asthma attack: A cold may trigger an asthma attack in those with asthma.
  • 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 an ear infection.
  • 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 require further medical attention.

Learn how long it takes for a cold to go away here.

As a head cold happens because of a viral infection, antibiotics are ineffective. 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 may be especially beneficial, such as teas, broths, and soups. 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 gargle with it.
  • Pain relievers: A headache, sore throat, and fever may be relieved with over-the-counter (OTC) 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 medicines to children.
  • Vaporizers or humidifiers: These devices help add moisture to the air, easing coughing and congestion. Using a vaporizer or humidifier at night might encourage a good night’s sleep. It is important to clean vaporizers and humidifiers daily to discourage the growth of microbes and mold. A range of humidifiers is available for purchase online.
  • Nasal sprays: Saline nasal sprays can loosen mucus in the nose and are suitable for children and adults. Adults may use decongestant nasal sprays for up to 3 days. However, people should avoid prolonged use of decongestant sprays as it may lead to addiction or rebound congestion. Learn more about nasal decongestants and age here.
  • Supplements: Many people take supplements to prevent or treat a head cold. The most popular supplements include vitamin C, Echinacea, and zinc. However, there is limited evidence on whether taking supplements reduces symptoms.

Learn how to treat a cold at home here.

It is not possible to vaccinate against a head cold, but the following steps may help reduce the risk of contracting a cold virus. They may be especially important for immunocompromised people:

  • Avoid contact with people who have the virus. Maintain a distance from anyone with 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. Clean kitchen countertops and bathroom fittings 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 from 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.

Learn more about proper handwashing here.

A person should consult their doctor if they or a child experience any of the following:

  • symptoms lasting longer than 10 days
  • severe or unusual symptoms
  • flu symptoms, including:
    • fever
    • chills
    • muscle or body aches

A person should contact a doctor immediately if a child younger than 3 months old has a fever or seems lethargic.

Learn more about the stages of a cold here.

Although there is no cure for a head cold, several home remedies can help ease symptoms and reduce discomfort. To avoid getting a cold, a person can take steps to limit exposure to viruses that cause colds.

People with a head cold can expect to recover within 7–10 days. Individuals who experience severe or persistent head cold symptoms should contact their doctor.

A head cold can happen after exposure to various viruses, most commonly rhinoviruses. Head colds can cause symptoms such as a runny nose, headaches, and a cough.

Head colds are not serious and usually go away on their own. However, a person can ease symptoms by resting, staying hydrated, and taking OTC cold medications.

Head colds are highly contagious and can spread when people cough or sneeze.