When you feel that first tickle in your nose or throat, you probably know what's coming -- another head cold. A runny nose and dry, itchy or sore throat are common symptoms, along with nasal stuffiness and sneezing. While a head cold is the most common culprit, these symptoms can occur with other conditions. Tipoffs that your itchy throat and runny nose might be due to another cause include persistence for longer than a week without improvement and the presence of additional signs and symptoms.
Biology Behind Cold Symptoms
Head colds are a type of upper respiratory infection caused by any of several viruses such as adenovirus, rhinovirus, coronaviru and parainfluenza virus. These viruses infect the cells that line the nose and upper throat, triggering an immune system response that leads to inflammation and swelling of the infected tissues and increased mucus production. Additionally, a stuffy nose often necessitates mouth breathing that can in turn lead to a dry, itchy throat. Postnasal drip can also aggravate throat discomfort associated with a cold.
Most colds occur in the winter months because school is in session and people tend to congregate indoors, which allows cold virus to spread more easily from one person to another. Symptoms typically appear suddenly 1 to 3 days after exposure to a cold-causing virus, peak in 24 to 48 hours and then gradually taper off. Adults with a head cold rarely experience fever, although young children may run a low-grade fever. Most colds clear on their own within 7 to 10 days.
Since there is no cure for the common cold, treatment focuses on symptom relief. Some simple nonmedicinal measures that might help you feel better include:
- Nasal saline rinses for congestion
- Vapor rub
- Increased fluids
- Warm tea to ease throat discomfort
- Throat lozenges
- Gargling with warm salt water
- Avoidance of cigarette smoke
Over-the-counter cough and cold medicines might help relieve symptoms of the common cold in older children and adults. Oral decongestants, such as pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) and phenylephrine (Sudafed PE) can help relieve nasal congestion. Products that contain a combination of an antihistamine and decongestant might also provide symptomatic relief, although antihistamines alone are ineffective. Dextromethorphan and guaifenesin might help suppress a cough associated with a cold but provide no relief for throat or nasal symptoms.
Warning: Over-the-counter cough and cold medicines are not recommend for children younger than 4 and should only be used if directed by your doctor for children aged 4 to 6, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
When It Might Not Be a Cold
Most people recover from a runny nose and dry, itchy throat due to a cold without complications within a week or so. See your healthcare provider if your symptoms persist for longer than 10 days, especially if there's been no improvement. Also contact your doctor if you experience signs or symptoms that point toward an illness other than a cold, including:
- Fever over 102 F
- Severe sore throat
- Swollen glands in the neck
- Facial pressure or pain
- Muscle aches
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
Reviewed and revised by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.