When Symptoms Mostly Occur From the Neck Up
Medically reviewed by Sameena Zahoor, MD
You probably know the symptoms: a funny feeling in the back of your throat, a sudden stuffy nose, a cough developing out of nowhere—these can be symptoms of a head cold. Some people use the term “head cold” because their symptoms mainly affect the nose, eyes, and throat. A head cold is another name for the common cold.
A head cold can last up to two weeks and can’t be “cured.” It has to run its course as your immune system eliminates the virus. However, medicines and natural remedies can help ease symptoms and make you feel better.
This article discusses the symptoms of a head cold, how to tell if your symptoms indicate a more severe illness, and offers strategies to manage symptoms when you’re under the weather.
Table of Contents
Do I Have a Head Cold, or Something Else?
The symptoms of a head cold are confined to the nose, eyes, and throat and include the following:
A low-grade fever can also be a symptom, but most people don’t have fevers with a head cold. In addition, these symptoms can overlap with other conditions, like COVID-19, allergies, or the flu. But how do you know if it’s a head cold or something else?
COVID-19: An unmistakable sign of COVID-19 is losing your sense of smell. Other symptoms include extreme fatigue, body aches, fever, and pressure in the chest. For certainty, take a COVID-19 test.
Flu: A high fever (up to 102 degrees F), a severe cough, and chest congestion are all common with the flu. Sometimes, fatigue can be extreme and last for weeks.
Allergies: Fever, body aches, and fatigue are never present with allergies. You may experience chest discomfort if you have asthma.
Viral or Bacterial?
There are over 200 viruses that cause the common cold. Close to 40% of colds are caused by rhinoviruses. The rhinovirus family has about 100 different virus subtypes. Other virus families that can cause cold symptoms include adenovirus, coronavirus, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Sinusitis (sinus infection) is usually caused by viruses, but bacteria, like Streptococcus or Haemophilus influenzae can cause some sinus infections.
Related: Do I Have a Cold or COVID?
How Long Do Head Cold Symptoms Last?
The typical duration of head cold symptoms is about a week, though this can vary. There are three stages of head colds, as follows:
Incubation period: The first stage of a head cold is the incubation period. This is the time between exposure to a virus and symptoms. For most colds, this time frame is about 12-24 hours.
Symptom onset: During the second stage, symptoms appear. They become worse, peaking around the third day.
Symptom improvement: For the third stage, symptoms steadily improve until they disappear. For most people, this will take about seven to 10 days, though depending on your age and health status, it could take longer.
Sometimes, mild symptoms—such as a lingering cough—can last up to three weeks.
How to Naturally Get Over a Head Cold
There is no vaccine or cure for head colds. Your body’s immune system needs to fight off the virus. However, symptoms can be uncomfortable. Some people like to use natural remedies to manage their symptoms. Here are some things you can try at home to make yourself feel better:
Drink fluids: Fluids help prevent your nasal passages and throat from getting too dry. They also help mucus stay thin so you can clear it from your nose more easily.
Take supplements and herbs: Vitamin C, zinc, echinacea, garlic, and honey are thought to help shorten the duration of a cold. But there is no solid evidence to support this. Consult your healthcare provider before taking supplements or consuming doses of vitamins and minerals above the recommended daily amount.
Use a humidifier: Moist air helps loosen mucus. A humidifier adds moisture to the air. You can also breathe in steam from a bowl of hot water or during a hot shower.
Treatment Tips for High-Risk Populations
Cold symptoms may be more intense or last longer in older adults and small children. At-home treatment options include:
Staying hydrated with water, tea, or soup
Using humidity (a humidifier or a steamy shower) to loosen nasal congestion and a humidifier to keep the air moist
Getting plenty of rest and sleep helps your body recover from a cold
Head Cold and Sinus Medications
Natural remedies may take the edge off, but sometimes symptoms such as the following are so bothersome that you may need medication to feel more comfortable:
Headache or fever: Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen) or Tylenol (acetaminophen) can relieve headache and fever. Children under 6 months should only be given acetaminophen. Never give children aspirin because it can cause Reye’s syndrome, which can cause brain and liver damage.
Congestion: Decongestants relieve a stuffy nose by narrowing the blood vessels in your nose. They are available as a pill, like Sudafed (pseudoephedrine), or a nasal spray. Consult a healthcare provider before taking pseudoephedrine. It narrows the blood vessels all over your body, causing high blood pressure in some people.
Cough: A cough can keep you awake and prevent restful sleep. Cough suppressants help reduce coughing, while expectorants loosen mucus so you can more easily cough it up.
Related: Children's Cold Medicine
Secondary Infections From a Head Cold
Your sinuses can become swollen and inflamed with a head cold. If this symptom lasts too long, you can develop a sinus infection, causing pressure and pain in your head and cheeks. A healthcare provider can do a physical examination to determine if your sinuses are infected. If the cause is bacterial, the provider will prescribe you antibiotics.
Other possible complications of a head cold can include the following:
Are You Contagious With a Head Cold?
You are most contagious and can pass a head cold on to someone else during the first two to three days of a head cold, and remain contagious as long as you have active symptoms, usually around a week. Once you feel better and don't have any persistent symptoms, such as congestion, a cough, or a runny nose, it's pretty unlikely that you'll pass your cold on to someone else.
Head Cold Not Getting Better
If your cold symptoms don't improve after seven to 10 days, you could have an infection or another health condition. Call your healthcare provider if you experience the following:
A fever that lasts longer than four days
A cough that goes away then returns
A chronic medical condition that gets worse
People sometimes call the common cold a head cold because the symptoms affect your head. A head cold typically lasts seven to ten days but can last longer in older adults and young kids. Some people rely on home remedies to manage cold symptoms; others prefer medications for comfort and symptom relief. If you have cold symptoms lasting longer than 10 days, or your symptoms worsen over time, call a healthcare provider for additional testing and diagnoses.
Read the original article on Verywell Health.