The natural history of community-acquired common colds symptoms assessed over 4-years

Rhinology. 2015 Mar;53(1):81-8. doi: 10.4193/Rhino14.149.


Background: The common cold is the most frequently experienced infection among humans, but limited data exist to characterize the onset, duration, severity and intersection of symptoms in community-acquired colds. A more complete understanding of the symptom frequency and burden in naturally occurring colds is needed.

Methodology: We characterized common cold symptoms from 226 cold episodes experienced by 104 male or female subjects. Subjects were enrolled in the work environment in an attempt to start symptom evaluation (frequency and severity) at the earliest sign of their cold. We also assessed the symptom that had the greatest impact on the subject by asking them to identify their single most bothersome symptom.

Results: Symptom reporting started within 24 hours of cold onset for most subjects. Sore throat was a harbinger of the illness but was accompanied by multiple symptoms, including nasal congestion, runny nose and headache. Cough was not usually the most frequent symptom, but was present throughout the cold, becoming most bothersome later in the cold. Nasal congestion, pain (eg, sore throat, headache, muscle pains) or feverishness and secretory symptoms (eg, runny nose, sneezing), and even cough, were simultaneously experienced with high incidence over the first 4 days of illness. The single most bothersome symptom was sore throat on day 1, followed by nasal congestion on days 2-5 and cough on days 6 and 7.

Conclusion: There is substantial overlap in the appearance of common cold symptoms over the first several days of the common cold. Nasal congestion, secretory and pain symptoms frequently occur together, with cough being somewhat less prominent, but quite bothersome when present. These data establish the typical symptomatology of a common cold and provide a foundation for the rational treatment of cold symptoms typically experienced by cold sufferers.

Publication types

  • Observational Study

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Common Cold / epidemiology*
  • Common Cold / pathology*
  • Community-Acquired Infections / epidemiology*
  • Community-Acquired Infections / pathology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Prospective Studies
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • United States / epidemiology