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Here's How You Catch a Virus/Cold

...and how to avoid them, too.

The common cold is pretty aptly named: There are more than one billion colds in the United States every year. And the average adult has two to three colds annually (although it may feel like more). There are more than 200 different viruses that cause symptoms of a cold. But we tend to catch them in just a few common ways, and the life cycle of a cold virus tends to run like clockwork.

How You Catch a Virus/Cold

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most common ways people contract a virus that leads to the common cold is through the air — when someone coughs or sneezes the virus, and you inhale it — and close personal contact with an infected person, like shaking hands with someone who has a cold. You can also touch a surface that has viruses on it (such as a door handle or elevator button), then touch your nose, eyes or mouth, and bingo: The virus has a new home called you.

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Very small amounts of virus — as few as one particle — are enough to give you a cold. The cold virus most often enters through the nose, where cilia (tiny hairs) sweep it into the back of the throat, where it hangs out in the adenoid glands behind the roof of the mouth. Then the virus starts reproducing, and within 10 to 12 hours, symptoms begin. Those include such old favorites as:

  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Congestion
  • Scratchy or sore throat
  • Coughing
  • Fever 
  • Mild body aches or headache

All of those symptoms are inflammatory reactions the body produces to expel the invading virus. The time from infection to when symptoms peak is about 36 to 72 hours.

Remember your mother diagnosing you with a "24-hour bug" so you wouldn't miss school? When it comes to the common cold, that duration is wishful thinking. Although most of us would be satisfied to end the experience after 48 hours or so, most people recover from a cold within seven to 10 days. A pesky cough might hang around for weeks.

When to Worry

Because the common cold is caused by a virus, antibiotics won't help. In fact, the epidemic of people demanding antibiotics from their doctors for colds has led to an increase in antibiotic resistance. 

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Your best course of action is to rest, get plenty of fluids, eat as you feel able and take over-the-counter medication to ease symptoms and lower a fever if you have one.

That said, if you have any of the following symptoms, it's wise to give your doctor a call:

  • A fever over 101.3 F (38.5 C).
  • A fever that lasts five days or comes back after a three-day period.
  • Shortness of breath, wheezing or difficulty breathing.
  • Severe sore throat, headache or sinus pain.
  • Coughing up red, brown or black phlegm. (Contrary to popular belief, yellow or green phlegm doesn't always mean you have a bacterial infection and need antibiotics.)

What You Can Do

To prevent colds, wash your hands frequently and thoroughly (for about 20 seconds), or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer regularly. Avoid touching your eyes, mouth or nose until you've washed your hands.

Disinfect your work surface, keyboard and cellphone regularly.

Don't share glasses, soda cans, straws or eating utensils.

Avoid close contact with people who have cold symptoms.

If you're sick, don't go to school or work until you've recovered. When you have a cold, you're most contagious for the first two or three days. Colds are rarely contagious after a week, the CDC says.

Get seven to nine hours of sleep each night, and manage stress. And to live your happiest and healthiest life, don't miss these 40 Secrets Your Doctor Won't Tell You.

Michael Martin
Michael Martin is a New York City-based writer and editor. Read more about Michael