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Health & Wellness

Exploring the Causes of the Common Cold

Many of us experience symptoms of the common cold a few times a year; the telltale symptoms of a runny or stuffy nose, cough, headache, and fatigue seem to come out of nowhere and leave us debilitated for up to ten days. But where does the common cold come from? How does it pass from one person to another? Can we take steps to avoid becoming infected with the virus?

common cold What is a cold?

The common cold is an upper respiratory infection that is caused by a virus. This particular virus usually affects the nose, but can also affect the bronchial tubes, throat, sinuses, trachea, and larynx. A cold can be caused by up to 250 different viruses but is most often caused by a strain of rhinovirus.

Symptoms of a Cold

A cold usually produces mild symptoms, although these can still be the cause of missed days of school or work. Symptoms typically last for 7-10 days, although some can remain for up to three weeks. These symptoms may include a sore or “itchy” throat, runny nose, sneezing, congestion, headache, cough, mild fever, watery eyes, and even mildly swollen lymph nodes.

Common Cold Stages common cold

A cold generally comes on slowly after a short incubation period, with the first couple of days marked by a headache, sneezing, mild chills, a scratchy throat and general feeling of malaise. As the virus progresses, the nose may become stuffy or runny, a cough can develop, and fatigue sets in. After about a week, symptoms begin to dissipate and eventually disappear. Although many common colds follow these particular stages, you can experience any cold symptoms at any "stage" of the cold, and the progression and intensity of the symptoms vary person to person. 1

Common Cold Incubation Period

The incubation period of the common cold - which is the time in which your body is infected with the virus but you have yet to show symptoms - can be anywhere from 24 to 72 hours. You’re contagious up to two days before symptoms begin to show, and can continue to be contagious until up to two weeks after initially being exposed to the virus - although most people are no longer contagious after showing symptoms for a week. Germs that can cause you and others to become ill can live on inanimate objects such as doorknobs, phones, and countertops for up to 24 hours. 2

common cold Tracking the Progression of the Virus

You can often track the progression of the cold virus through the color of the nasal discharge. This is because the symptoms of a cold are actually the result of your body attempting to fight off the illness. When your body recognizes that it has been invaded by a foreign virus, it sends out white blood cells to destroy it. When you’re generally healthy, nasal discharge is clear in color. When your white blood cells identify a virus and attempt to destroy it, the increase in white blood cell count causes the mucus to turn light yellow or light green in color. As the virus progresses and even more white blood cells are sent in to fight it, the discharge may turn completely green. Once the virus is out of your system, you’ll notice that nasal discharge has returned to its normal clear color. 3

Contracting a Cold Virus

The viruses that cause the common cold are incredibly contagious and can be transmitted through the air, from person-to-person contact, or even from coming in contact with an object that an infected person has recently touched. Contrary to popular belief, spending time outdoors in cold weather does not cause one to become ill. Many people become ill with a cold during the winter months due to the increased amount of time spent indoors with other people. If someone in your home is sick, chances are they are coughing or sneezing near you or on something that you frequently touch. The virus enters your body through your eyes, nose, or mouth, and frequently touching your face without washing your hands can lead to infection.

Preventing the Common Cold common cold

While it is nearly impossible to avoid coming in contact with the viruses that cause the common cold, there are certain precautions you can take to help prevent you from getting ill.

It is important to thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water before eating, after shaking someone’s hand, or after touching potentially contaminated objects. Even if you are washing your hands frequently, you should avoid touching your face, as the virus can enter through your eyes, nose, and mouth. Don’t share cups or utensils with others, even if they don’t seem to be exhibiting symptoms of a cold. If someone is showing symptoms, be careful of coming in close contact with them until their symptoms subside. By maintaining a healthy diet and getting a full 7-8 hours of sleep each night, you can keep your immune system functioning properly. 4

Keeping your home free of harmful pathogens can also keep you and your family healthy. It is important to wipe down surfaces at least once a day, especially in the kitchen and bathroom. While there are plenty of chemical cleaners out there, it is quick and easy to make your own disinfecting spray out of natural ingredients. Fill a spray bottle with 50% water and 50% white vinegar, and then add a few drops of lemon and tea tree essential oils. The strong antifungal, antibacterial and antiviral properties of both of these essential oils can rid your home of harmful pathogens and help keep you healthy.


Adults contract approximately 2-3 colds per year, while children can contract upwards of 10-12. 5 Although the viruses that cause the common cold are extremely contagious, knowing how they are contracted can help you take the necessary steps to avoid becoming ill as frequently. By maintaining a healthy lifestyle, keeping your hands' germ-free and using essential oils to disinfect your home, you are taking the steps necessary to stay healthy.

For the tough times during a cold that you may be achy your head hurts, try out a blend of ginger, helichrysum, and spikenard essential oils.

Photo Credits: TeroVesalainen/, SubbotinaAnna/, VGstockstudio/, AlexanderRaths/

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