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Cold and Flu Center

Head Cold Symptoms

author image Dr. Tina M. St. John
Tina M. St. John runs a health communications and consulting firm. She is also an author and editor, and was formerly a senior medical officer with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. St. John holds an M.D. from Emory University School of Medicine.
Head Cold Symptoms
women blowing her nose while laying on couch - covered with blanket Photo Credit: 4774344sean/iStock/Getty Images

A head cold--also called the common cold--is the most frequent illness you will experience in your lifetime. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases reports more than 200 different viruses can cause the common cold. Adults typically experience two to four colds per year; children have six to 10 colds annually. The tissues lining the nasal passages and upper throat are the focus of infection with cold viruses. Consequently, most symptoms of the common cold relate to inflammation of the nasal and upper throat linings.

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Runny Nose

A runny nose is one of the most common symptoms of the common cold. The volume of nasal mucus is increased as the body’s immune system fights the viral infection. The mucus is typically clear and runny for the first few days; it then gradually gets thicker and may turn yellowish as the infection clears.

Nasal Congestion

Swelling of the nasal lining, with obstruction of airflow through the nose, is a characteristic symptom of a head cold. The same processes that cause a runny nose also cause swelling of the nasal lining. Therefore, these two symptoms typically occur together and resolve together. On average, a head cold lasts approximately seven days, though symptoms can last as long as two weeks.


Most people with a head cold have sneezing and an itchy sensation in the nose. The viral infection of the nasal airways and the body’s immune response trigger nerves in the nose, causing sneezing.

Scratchy or Sore Throat

A scratchy or sore throat often accompanies a head cold. Mucus from the nose running down the back of the throat is the usual cause of this symptom. Mouth breathing, which is necessary because the nose is congested, can also dry and irritate the throat.


A minority of people with a head cold experience a mild headache. It is often due to increased sinus pressure, caused by swelling of the sinus tissues. The headache typically ebbs as nasal congestion clears.


A cough sometimes occurs with a head cold. It is caused by mucus from the nose running down the back of the throat; common cold viruses do not directly affect the lungs.


Young children may have a low-grade fever with a head cold, typically 100 to 102 degrees Fahrenheit. Adults do not usually have a fever with a cold.

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