Cold viruses


Especially when the temperatures drop, there is often a widespread wave of colds. Frequent freezing increases the risk of infection with cold viruses. These viruses spread through direct physical contact, e.g. when shaking hands, or through contact with the smallest droplets of the body fluids of sick people, which can easily happen, for example, when coughing or sneezing in public. But what exactly are these cold viruses, what types are there and above all - how can you protect yourself against them?


First of all, the terms “cold” and “cold viruses” must be examined more closely: A cold is not a diagnosis in the medical sense, as it is a vaguely defined term.
In general, a cold, in combination with a cough, and possibly an increased feeling of illness, is referred to as a cold. A cold is thus bordered by bronchitis - an inflammatory process in the airways with fever and increased mucus formation - and pneumonia, or else pneumonia from.
A cold is a very mild clinical picture with few complications, while pneumonia has a mortality rate of 1-2% and higher.
First of all, nobody has to die from a cold. It can only become dangerous if bacteria join the cold viruses. One then speaks of a so-called superinfection, which is characterized by a sudden and serious deterioration in the course of the disease.

The term "cold viruses" refers to a range of viruses that can potentially cause a cold.
There are around 200 of them and they come from a wide variety of virus families and subgroups. The high variability of the pathogens is also the reason why we can so often get sick with a viral cold: As soon as a virus has been successfully fought by our immune system, the next virus can in principle spread directly if it works via a completely different mechanism of action and thus is completely foreign to the immune system at this point in time.
The fact that we do not become seriously ill or die directly from every viral infection shows that cold viruses are well adapted to the human body. The reason for this is that the viruses use the body as a host in order to be able to reproduce. Badly adapted viruses destroy this very quickly. Since the cold viruses have been able to adapt to the human body over many centuries and millennia, “living together” with them is relatively symptom-free - even if of course annoying.But it can also happen that we are constantly plagued by colds for months without ever being seriously ill. However, our immune system is weakened at this moment, as it has to constantly grapple with the cold viruses and can devote less time and resources to other, more dangerous pathogens.

You may also be interested in this topic: Viral infection

How long is the incubation period for cold viruses?

There is no general value for all cold viruses. However, two to four days can be used as a rough guide.

In addition, the incubation period, i.e. the time from infection with the virus to the onset of symptoms of the disease, differs from person to person and depends to a not inconsiderable extent on the immune system of each person.
Compared to other viral diseases, however, it can be said that the incubation period for cold viruses is rather short.

How long are cold viruses contagious?

With regard to the infection time, no general statement is possible.
This depends on the immune situation of the person with a cold as well as on the type of virus itself. Roughly speaking, it is about seven days in which a sick person is contagious. It is important, however, that you are contagious before the first symptoms.

The first few days you experience symptoms are the most contagious. Before and after, the risk of infection is lower.
In addition, at the end of your own illness you no longer spread viruses and are therefore no longer contagious. Contact with others should therefore be kept as low as possible, especially during the period of the cold, but is no longer a problem after the disease has ended.

What is the route of infection by cold viruses?

The human skin usually offers natural protection against viruses. If the skin is injured or if the viruses reach the mucous membranes, they can overcome the barrier and lead to an infection.
Cold viruses often enter the human body through the respiratory tract. They get stuck here and, proceeding from the bronchi and lungs, continue into the body to also affect the other organ systems. However, some cold viruses are also restricted in their spread to the respiratory tract, so mainly cause coughs and lung diseases.

How long can cold viruses survive outside of the human body?

The survival time of viruses depends on the one hand on the surface, and on the other hand, and crucially, also on the type of virus.
As a rough rule of thumb, you can assume from several hours to a few days.
The viruses should not succeed much more, however, which is due to the fact that viruses cannot survive on their own, but need a host whose metabolism they can use. Since bacteria are very capable of doing this, however, they can survive for up to several thousand years.

What cold viruses are there?

There are a number of viruses that can cause cold symptoms. The most important representatives include:

  • Influenza viruses: Cause of the manifest flu with cough, headache and body aches as well as suddenly onset of high fever over several days.
  • Parainfluenza viruses: only mild symptoms develop in adults. In children, on the other hand, there are croup coughs and inflammation of the upper respiratory tract and fever.
  • Adenoviruses: Causes coughing, sore throat and can cause pneumonia in young children.
  • Enteroviruses: They cause the so-called summer flu. Because they mainly cause cold symptoms in the summer months. In severe cases it can even lead to meningitis.
  • Coronaviruses: As a rule, there is only a cough and runny nose. However, there is one subspecies that causes severe pneumonia and bronchitis. However, this subtype is mainly found in Asia.
  • Metapneumonia virus: causes bronchitis and otitis media. Pneumonia can even develop, especially in young children.
  • Rhinoviruses: They usually cause sinus infections and, in worse cases, can affect the bronchi. Asthmatics often worsen dramatically when they have an infection.
  • RS viruses: cause of mild airway inflammation in adults. However, middle ear infections and pneumonia can occur in children

The RS virus

The respiratory syncytical virus, or RS virus for short, is one of the most important causes of respiratory diseases, especially in childhood.
The virus attacks the cells of the upper respiratory tract, where it can lead to a significant narrowing of the bronchi due to the production of mucus and the formation of plugs from dead viruses and cells.
If the viruses also get into the lower respiratory tract, it can lead to slight fluid congestion in the lungs and severe coughing.

The treatment is directed against the resulting symptoms, so that expectorants, cough syrups or agents to dilate the bronchi can be prescribed by the doctor.
As a housewife trick, however, inhalation over steaming salt water is also highly recommended in order to better loosen the mucus and to open the airways.

You can find everything on this topic in our article: RS virus


Since a viral cold usually subsides after 1-2 weeks, the therapy after Combating Symptoms. The aim is to create the greatest possible freedom from symptoms. Since the body can fight the cold virus itself very well, no medication is usually prescribed.

Painkiller like ibuprofen or paracetamol can relieve symptoms like headache or body aches, but do not combat their cause. In severe cases, however, these can of course be taken without any problems; according to the latest findings, paracetamol is also suitable for taking during pregnancy.

Furthermore, the body needs Quiet and warmth, and should be kept away from other sources of infection. The bed is particularly suitable for this. Now and then it should ventilated to reduce the number of pathogens in the air.

Since the body loses fluids in the long run when coughing and runny nose, one should adequate hydration (at least 2 liters per day), e.g. in the form of warm teas.

At strong nasal congestion nasal sprays can also be applied. However, this should not used for more than a week as they are indeed the nasal mucosa diminish let, but at the same time dry out.

Many patients come to the doctor with a viral cold and want to be prescribed antibiotics because they believe that they can help quickly with the common cold. However, antibiotics only show for bacterial diseases an effect but not for viral ones. Since a common cold is almost exclusively a viral disease, So antibiotics have no effect here. Only if there is one Super infection comes with bacterial colonization of the viral pathogen, antibiosis is useful and even urgently necessary. However, these symptoms express themselves differently and much more violently than with a viral cold. Apart from that, antibiotics should be used sparingly, since the bacterial pathogens naturally also spread get used to the antibiotics and develop defense mechanisms. It can happen that certain antibiotics no longer have an effect in the long term and other antibiotics have to be used - the number is of course limited.

Why don't antibiotics help against cold viruses?

Antibiotics are agents that are supposed to prevent the growth of bacteria or kill bacteria.
Viruses, on the other hand, have a different cell structure, different capsule components and need a so-called host in order to multiply and survive.

Antibiotics cannot help against viral diseases, because the structures against which the antibiotic is directed are not present in viruses and consequently they cannot be killed by the antibiotic. The antibiotic can even help the virus by killing bacteria, which in turn slow down the replication of the virus.

Which medications can help?

From a conventional medical point of view, so-called antivirals are used to treat diseases caused by viruses.
These have the same effect as antibiotics, but are directed against viral pathogens. For example, they can hinder the replication of virus DNA or destroy proteins in the virus envelope, so that the viruses die.

Antivirals are only indicated for acute and severe colds and especially for risk groups (immunocompromised, children, seniors). Usually one trusts that the body's own immune system can fight the viruses well enough and only treats symptoms such as headaches, coughs, etc.

Treatment with zinc

Zinc is a relatively conservative method of treating a viral cold.
Zinc serves as an enzyme regulator - especially for enzymes of the immune system, which thereby become more active and thus promote healing.

Zinc can be taken either in the form of lozenges or capsules. But foods with a high zinc content can also be consumed - provided that your appetite allows it.
Studies have shown that people who consumed more zinc were on average less sick than other study participants.

Please also read the article on this: Zinc ointment


A Strengthening the immune system is always an advantage. In the autumn and winter months you should be on warm clothing pay attention and enough Vitamins to take in. These are particularly suitable fresh fruits and vegetables. If someone in the household is already sick, it should be done from time to time ventilated but it is also a good idea to ventilate the room from time to time. However, the living rooms should of course also be kept warm so that there is no risk of getting cold. Warm teas and sufficient Sports round off a sensible protection against colds in late summer.


Everyone has gone through the symptoms of a cold at some point in their life: it starts with a scratchy throat that can quickly develop into difficulty swallowing. However, unlike tonsillitis, these only exist for 2-3 days and then subside. There is also a runny nose (Rhinitis) and a general feeling of illness, which manifests itself in the form of headache and body aches. Often, however, it only remains with a cough and runny nose. In rare cases, however, chills and, depending on the virus, even fever.

The climax of the course of the disease is usually reached after a week, after 2 weeks the cold is usually completely gone. However, complications based on a common cold can also arise. Bacterial pathogens can cause additional damage, especially if the immune system has been weakened too much by the viral infection. One then speaks of a "superinfection". A superinfection leads to pneumonia in the throat and pharynx, for example, and is characterized by a sudden, severe deterioration in the course of the disease. Further complications can arise if the cold viruses spread from the throat and throat area into the surrounding structures. The paranasal sinuses and ears are predestined for this. One then speaks of sinusitis or otitis. An infestation of the larynx and the vocal cords leads to a rough, hoarse voice, which can sometimes fail completely as a result.


The diagnosis usually takes place clinical based on Symptoms. A Pathogen detection will usually not done, because it is too expensive, too complex and not necessary for therapy. Exceptions may be made chronic infectionsthat have been going on for months.

Cause of a cold

Viral colds are caused by a number of around 200 different viruses. The most common triggers are, in descending order, the human rhinovirus, the coronaviruses, and the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

In order to be able to understand this more precisely, the term “virus” has to be explained in more detail. Viruses are - and this is what distinguishes them from bacteria - small biochemical particles that cannot survive without a host. They do not have their own metabolism and are not able to reproduce on their own. Your survival depends on finding a suitable organism, multiplying there as quickly as possible and staying as long as possible. As soon as the human immune system becomes aware of the viruses, they have to look for a new host. When it comes to viruses, experts do not speak of "living beings" in the actual sense.

Cold viruses were usually named after their place of discovery or their first description, which is why one should not be confused by the sometimes cryptic names. The common cold viruses all have in common that they are more or less well adapted to the epithelium of the pharynx and bronchial wall. Since there are naturally many defense mechanisms of the human immune system, especially at the entry points into the body, these areas of the body are particularly well “monitored”. Therefore, the cold viruses have to act quickly and multiply as quickly as possible before the immune system can react. If there is a viral cold, 40% of the cases are rhinovirus infections, 10-25% coronaviruses, and 10-15% RS viruses. The individual mechanisms of action are actually irrelevant for the patient, but they have in common that the epithelium of the pharynx and bronchial wall is attacked.

Illustration of a virus

Illustration viruses

Viruses (singular virus)

  1. Virus envelope
    Lipid bilayer
  2. Capsule
    Protein shell
  3. nucleic acid
    (RNA or DNA viruses)
    Ribonucleic acid
    Deoxyribonucleic acid
  4. Membrane proteins
    Lipid proteins (spikes)
  5. Capsomer (subunit)
    A - unenveloped virus
    (Nucleic capsid)
    B - enveloped virus
    Structure from:
    Genetic material - Nucleic acids
    Proteins - Proteins
    Lipids (sometimes)

You can find an overview of all Dr-Gumpert images at: medical illustrations

Recommendations from the editorial team

You can find more information about cold viruses at:

  • Cold and flu - these are the differences
  • Sore throat - what to do?
  • Cough - how to get rid of it
  • Common cold - these are the causes
  • Preventing a cold properly - what you should pay attention to