What Is a Cold?
The common cold, also known simply as a cold, is a viral infectious disease of the upper respiratory tract that primarily affects the nose. The throat, sinuses, and larynx may also be affected. Signs and symptoms may appear less than two days after exposure to the virus. These may include coughing, sore throat, runny nose, sneezing, headache, and fever. People usually recover in seven to ten days, but some symptoms may last up to three weeks. Occasionally those with other health problems may develop pneumonia.
Well over 200 virus strains are implicated in causing the common cold, with rhinoviruses being the most common. They spread through the air during close contact with infected people or indirectly through contact with objects in the environment, followed by transfer to the mouth or nose. Risk factors include going to child care facilities, not sleeping well, and psychological stress. The symptoms are mostly due to the body’s immune response to the infection rather than to tissue destruction by the viruses themselves. In contrast, those affected by influenza can show similar symptoms as people with a cold, but symptoms are usually more severe. Additionally, influenza is less likely to result in a runny nose.
There is no vaccine for the common cold. The primary methods of prevention are hand washing; not touching the eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands; and staying away from sick people. Some evidence supports the use of face masks. There is also no cure, but the symptoms can be treated. Zinc may reduce the duration and severity of symptoms if started shortly after the onset of symptoms. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen may help with pain. Antibiotics, however, should not be used and there is no good evidence for cough medicines.
What Causes Colds?
The common cold can be caused by more than 200 different viruses. Around 50 percent of colds are caused by rhinoviruses, other cold-causing viruses include:
- human parainfluenza virus
- Human metapneumovirus
- coronaviruses adenovirus
- human respiratory syncytial virus
When a virus manages to overpower the body’s immune system, infection occurs. The first line of defense is mucus, which is produced in the nose and throat by the mucus glands. This mucus traps anything inhaled, such as dust, viruses, and bacteria. Mucus is a slippery fluid that the membranes of the nose, mouth, throat, and vagina produce.
When the mucus is penetrated by the virus, the virus then enters a cell, the virus takes control and uses the cell’s machinery to manufacture more viruses, and these viruses then attack surrounding cells.
Symptoms of a common cold usually appear one to three days after exposure to a cold-causing virus. Signs and symptoms, which can vary from person to person, might include:
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Sore throat
- Slight body aches or a mild headache
- Low-grade fever
- Generally feeling unwell (malaise)
The discharge from your nose may become thicker and yellow or green in color as a common cold runs its course. This isn’t an indication of a bacterial infection.
When to see a doctor
For adults — seek medical attention if you have:
- Fever greater than 101.3 F (38.5 C)
- Fever lasting five days or more or returning after a fever-free period
- Shortness of breath
- Severe sore throat, headache or sinus pain
For children — in general, your child doesn’t need to see the doctor for a common cold. But seek medical attention right away if your child has any of the following:
- Fever of 100.4 F (38 C) in newborns up to 12 weeks
- Rising fever or fever lasting more than two days in a child of any age
- Symptoms that worsen or fail to improve
- Severe symptoms, such as headache or cough
- Ear pain
- Extreme fussiness
- Unusual drowsiness
- Lack of appetite
How does the common cold spread?
The common cold is spread either by direct contact with infected secretions from contaminated surfaces or by inhaling the airborne virus after individuals sneeze or cough. Person-to-person transmission often occurs when an individual who has a cold blows or touches their nose and then touches someone or something else. A healthy individual who then makes direct contact with these secretions can subsequently become infected, often after their contaminated hands contact their own eyes, nose, or mouth. A cold virus can live on frequently touched objects such as doorknobs, pens, books, cell phones, computer keyboards, and coffee cups for several hours and can thus be acquired from contact with these objects.
How long is the common cold contagious?
In general, the common cold can be contagious anywhere from one to two days before the symptoms begin up until the symptoms have completely resolved. However, the common cold is typically most contagious during the initial two to three days of illness.
What are risk factors for acquiring the common cold?
There are various risk factors that may increase the chances of acquiring the common cold, including the following:
- Age: Infants and young children are more likely to develop the common cold because they have not yet developed immunity to many of the implicated viruses.
- Seasonal variation: Individuals more commonly acquire the common cold during the fall, winter, or during the rainy season (in warmer climates). This is felt to occur because people tend to stay indoors and are in closer proximity to one another.
- Weakened immune system: Individuals with a poorly functioning immune system are more likely to develop the common cold. Also, individuals with excessive fatigue or emotional distress may be more susceptible to catching the common cold.
These factors can increase your chances of getting a cold:
- Age. Children younger than 6 are at greatest risk of colds, especially if they spend time in child-care settings.
- Weakened immune system. Having a chronic illness or otherwise weakened immune system increases your risk.
- Time of year. Both children and adults are more susceptible to colds in fall and winter, but you can get a cold anytime.
- Smoking. You’re more likely to catch a cold and to have more-severe colds if you’re exposed to cigarette smoke.
- Exposure. If you’re around many people, such as at school or on an airplane, you’re likely to be exposed to viruses that cause colds.
- Acute ear infection (otitis media). This occurs when bacteria or viruses enter the space behind the eardrum. Typical signs and symptoms include earaches and, in some cases, a green or yellow discharge from the nose or the return of a fever following a common cold.
- Asthma. A cold can trigger an asthma attack.
- Acute sinusitis. In adults or children, a common cold that doesn’t resolve can lead to inflammation and infection of the sinuses (sinusitis).
- Other secondary infections. These include strep throat (streptococcal pharyngitis), pneumonia, and croup or bronchiolitis in children. These infections need to be treated by a doctor.
It is important to realize that both antibiotics and antiviral medications are ineffective against most viruses that cause the common cold. A cold normally lasts up to 10 days; however, some symptoms can stay as long as 3 weeks.
Although there is no real way of treating or curing a common cold, the following measures may help ease the symptoms:
- Drink plenty of fluids and keep well hydrated, being dehydrated when infected with a cold can make symptoms worse.
- Get plenty of bed rest; it is important to get as much sleep/rest as possible while the immune system is fighting off the virus.
- Take aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen to relieve headache or fever. Do not give aspirin to children under 16.
- Some people find that inhaling steam helps ease the symptoms of nasal congestion.
Aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen are available for purchase online.
Find out more about how to treat and manage a cold: How to treat a cold.
There’s no vaccine for the common cold, but you can take commonsense precautions to slow the spread of cold viruses:
- Wash your hands. Clean your hands thoroughly and often with soap and water, and teach your children the importance of hand-washing. If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Disinfect your stuff. Clean kitchen and bathroom countertops with disinfectant, especially when someone in your family has a cold. Wash children’s toys periodically.
- Use tissues. Sneeze and cough into tissues. Discard used tissues right away, then wash your hands carefully.
Teach children to sneeze or cough into the bend of their elbow when they don’t have a tissue. That way they cover their mouths without using their hands.
- Don’t share. Don’t share drinking glasses or utensils with other family members. Use your own glass or disposable cups when you or someone else is sick. Label the cup or glass with the name of the person with the cold.
- Steer clear of colds. Avoid close contact with anyone who has a cold.
- Choose your child care center wisely. Look for a child care setting with good hygiene practices and clear policies about keeping sick children at home.
- Take care of yourself. Eating well, getting exercise and enough sleep, and managing stress might help you keep colds at bay.
What is the treatment for the common cold? Are there any home remedies for the common cold?
There is no cure for the common cold. The common cold is a self-limiting illness that will resolve spontaneously with time and expectant management. Home remedies and medical treatments are directed at alleviating the symptoms associated with the common cold while the body fights off the infection.
Home treatment for upper respiratory infections includes getting rest and drinking plenty of fluids. In older children and adults, common over-the-counter drugs such as throat lozenges, throat sprays, cough drops, and cough syrups may help relieve symptoms, though they will not prevent or shorten the duration of the common cold. Gargling with warm saltwater may help people with sore throats. Decongestant drugs such as pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) or antihistamines may be used for nasal symptoms, while saline nasal sprays may also be beneficial. It is important to note that over-the-counter medications may cause undesirable side effects, therefore they must be taken with care and as directed. Pregnant women should discuss the safety of common over-the-counter medications with their pharmacist or health care professional.
Acetaminophen (Tylenol and others) and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) are common over-the-counter medicines that can help with fever, sore throat, headache, and body aches.
The treatment for infants and small children with the common cold is supportive as well. It is especially important to allow rest and encourage plenty of fluids in order to prevent dehydration. Nasal drops and bulb suctioning may be used to clear nasal mucus from the nasal passages in infants. Medicines such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen may be taken for pain or fever based on the package recommendations for age and weight. Do not use aspirin or aspirin-containing medications in children or teenagers because it has been associated with a rare, potentially fatal condition called Reye’s syndrome. Finally, over-the-counter cough and cold medications for infants and young children are not recommended. Medication manufacturers now recommend that over-the-counter cough and cold drugs not be used in children younger than 4 years of age because of serious and potentially life-threatening side effects.
Common alternative treatments to prevent or treat the common cold, such as vitamin C, zinc, echinacea, and other herbal remedies, have had mixed results in studies evaluating their effectiveness. Therefore, discuss these treatment options with a health care professional.
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