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The common cold is an acute upper respiratory tract infection.

Respiratory tract infections are spread through droplets and via air expelled when an infected person coughs, sneezes, talks, sings or shouts. They can also be caught from touching, for example if an infected person has coughed into their hands and then touches another person. Common cold viruses can also be caught from surfaces such as doorhandles.

Common colds are caused by hundreds of different viruses. An adult usually has around 2 or 3 common colds per year.

A common cold usually begins with general symptoms such as headache, chills and a sore throat, followed later by a blocked and runny nose. Cough and malaise may also occur.

A common cold usually lasts 1 to 2 weeks, although sometimes the symptoms may continue for several weeks.

How to treat a common cold

The most important aspect in treating a common cold is sufficient rest.

Common cold symptoms can be relieved at home:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and paracetamol (acetaminophen) can be used to manage fever and pain when needed.
  • A blocked and runny nose can be treated over a short period (5 to 10 days) with nasal sprays sold in pharmacies (e.g. Nasolin, Otrivin).
  • Nasal congestion can be relieved with nasal irrigation.
  • Routine use of cough mixtures to manage a cold-related cough is not recommended. Try honey instead.
  • The best remedy for hoarseness is to avoid talking.
  • Inhaling steam may help to ease congestion.
  • Drinking plenty of fluids helps to prevent dehydration.

Secondary infections such as sinusitis, middle ear infection and pneumonia can occur following a common cold. These require treatment with antibiotics.

Preventing a common cold

The best way to avoid catching a common cold is through good hand hygiene. Anyone who has a common cold should cough or sneeze into a tissue or their sleeve when around other people. Infected people can also wear a mask and keep away from others in public places and on public transport if they need to leave home.

Information on the COVID-19 infection

At the end of 2019, a COVID-19 infection caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, spread from China, causing a global pandemic.

The COVID-19 infection can usually be treated symptomatically, like other acute respiratory tract infections. In the case of severe symptoms, like shortness of breath or poor general condition, contact a healthcare professional immediately.

Vaccination is the best way to prevent severe illness from COVID-19.

If you do get a COVID-19 infection, stay at home until the symptoms have eased substantially.

Data sources:
Duodecim: Terveysportti health portal, Lääkärin tietokanta doctor’s database

FSHS General practitioner / 20.6.2023