BACKGROUND In this study the quality of health care provided in cases of the common cold and similar was studied. These diseases were selected to seek opportunities for improvement for health care professionals by the nominal group technique. METHODS A retrospective study of the health care procedures was carried out in randomized sample of cases attended in one month in eight health care centers randomly selected from among the centers in the Autonomic Community of Murcia. A total of 400 cases (50 per center) were studied with the variability among centers with regard to the fulfillment of consensus criteria (physical examination, treatment registration, and appropriate prescription) and the relationship with certain characteristics of the center (university, urban) and the health care staff (general physicians, or pediatricians) being analyzed. RESULTS Great variability was found from one center to another regarding the criteria of physical examination and prescription, the simultaneous low fulfillment of the three criteria of quality (from 2 to 60%), the positive association between physical examination and the correct prescription (p < 0.01) and a higher level of quality in urban centers (OR: 7.5, p < 0.00001). Antibiotics were prescribed in 89% (CI 95%: +/- 4.6) of the cases with inappropriate prescription in 47% of the total (CI 95%: +/- 4.9; range among centers: from 4.1 to 75.7%). CONCLUSIONS The quality of health care towards the common cold may be markedly improved in most of the centers studied. The frequency of the use of antibiotics and the lack of physical examination are the basis of problematic and ineffective performance, being more frequently observed in rural and semirural centers.