The common cold is generally considered to be an upper respiratory tract infection. We studied the lower respiratory tract in 76 otherwise healthy young adults with the common cold. Viral infection was diagnosed in 56 (74%) of the 76 subjects. Rhinovirus was detected in 42 (55%) subjects. Chest radiography (CR) and high-resolution computerized tomography (HRCT) were carried out in 40 subjects on day 7, and pulmonary function testing with bronchodilator challenge was carried out in 36 patients on days 7 and 21 of the study. Clinical examinations were carried out on days 1, 7 and 21. The subjects recorded their symptoms on a diary card for 20 d. The mean duration of cough was 8.4 (SD 6.5) d and that of sputum production 5.9 (SD 6.4) d. No abnormal findings were detected in the lungs on auscultation. CR and HRCT showed no pulmonary changes associated with the common cold. No clinically remarkable increases were seen in peak expiratory flow, forced expiration volume in 1 s or forced vital capacity after bronchodilator challenge on either days 7 or 21. All patients made a clinical recovery without antimicrobial therapy within 21 d. We conclude that the common cold in young otherwise healthy adults is an upper respiratory tract infection and that clinically important abnormalities in the lower respiratory tract are rare.