Upper Respiratory Infection (Common Cold)

  • Exposure to any one of over 200 viruses may result in a person getting an upper respiratory infection, otherwise known as the “common cold”. Colds occur year-round, but are more frequent during the winter season. Every year, in the United States, over one billion colds affect children and adults. The frequency of getting respiratory infections is greater in children and on average a child will have three to eight colds per year.  As a result, colds are the most common reason for missing school. 

    Cold viruses are easily passed from person to person by coughing, sneezing, and blowing the nose. In addition, the virus can be transmitted by touching an object contaminated by a cold virus and then touching the nose, eyes, and mouth. Covering the mouth and nose when sneezing and frequent hand-washing are very helpful in preventing the spread of cold viruses.

    The main symptoms of the common cold are usually associated with the nose and include nasal congestion, sneezing, and a runny nose.  Young children may run a fever (100-102ᵒF).  Older children and adults generally are fever-free.  If they do run a fever, it will be mild.

    Symptoms of a cold generally begin 2-3 days after exposure to a cold virus, but may take as long as a week.  A scratchy throat and an itchy or irritated nose are typically the first signs.  This is followed by sneezing and a watery discharge from the nose a few hours later.  After 1 to 3 days, secretions become thicker and yellow or green in color.  This is a normal course for a cold and not an indication that antibiotics are needed. (Antibiotics are not effective in treating viral infections.)

    Other symptoms associated with a cold, depending on the virus: 

    • Sore throat
    • Cough
    • Headache
    • Decreased appetite
    • Muscle aches
    • Post-nasal drip

    The majority of symptoms of a cold usually last about 7 days, but a few symptoms, such as a cough, may last for another week.  If symptoms last longer than 2 weeks, a sinus infection or allergies may be the cause and a visit to the doctor is advised.

    Children often complain of ear pain following a cold.  Because the eardrum is congested during the course of the viral infection, it is possible to have a build- up of fluid behind the eardrum and not have a bacterial infection.  If ear pain is severe, a visit to the doctor is recommended.