Cold (Common Cold)

The common cold is a self-limited contagious disease that can be caused by a number of different types of viruses. The common cold is medically referred to as a viral upper respiratory tract infection. Symptoms of the common cold may include cough, sore throat, low-grade fever, watery eyes, nasal congestion, runny nose, and sneezing. More than 200 different types of viruses are known to cause the common cold, with rhinovirus causing approximately 30%-40% of all adult colds. Other commonly implicated viruses include coronavirus, adenovirus, respiratory syncytial virus, and parainfluenza virus. Because so many different viruses can cause the common cold, and because new cold viruses constantly develop, the body never builds up resistance against all of them. For this reason, colds are a frequent and recurring problem. In fact, children in preschool and elementary school can have six to 12 colds per year while adolescents and adults typically have two to four colds per year. The common cold occurs most frequently during the fall, winter, and spring.

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Although many types of viruses can cause a common cold, rhinoviruses are the most common culprit.

A cold virus enters your body through your mouth, eyes or nose. The virus can spread through droplets in the air when someone who is sick coughs, sneezes or talks.

It also spreads by hand-to-hand contact with someone who has a cold or by sharing contaminated objects, such as utensils, towels, toys or telephones. If you touch your eyes, nose or mouth after such contact or exposure, you're likely to catch a cold.

These factors can increase your chances of getting a cold:

  • Age. Children younger than six 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 any time.
  • Smoking. You're more likely to catch a cold and to have more severe colds if you 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.

Common cold symptoms typically begin two to three days after acquiring the infection (incubation period), though this may vary depending on the type of virus causing the infection. Individuals also tend to be most contagious during the initial two to three days of having symptoms. Symptoms and signs of the common cold may also vary depending on the virus responsible for the infection and may include

  • stuffy nose or nasal drainage,
  • sore or scratchy throat,
  • sneezing,
  • hoarseness,
  • cough,
  • watery eyes,
  • low-grade fever,
  • headache,
  • earache,
  • body aches,
  • loss of appetite, and
  • fatigue.

The signs and symptoms of the common cold in infants and children are similar to those seen in adults. The cold may begin with a runny nose with clear nasal discharge, which later may become yellowish or greenish in color.

Diagnosing a cold rarely requires a trip to your doctor’s office. Recognizing symptoms of a cold is often all you need in order to diagnose yourself. Of course, if symptoms worsen or persist after about a week’s time, you may need to see your doctor. You may actually be showing symptoms of a different problem, such as the flu or strep throat.

If you have a cold, you can expect the virus to work its way out in about a week to 10 days. If you have the flu, this virus may take the same amount of time to fully disappear, but if you notice symptoms are getting worse after day five, or if they’ve not disappeared in a week, you may have developed another condition.

The only way to definitively know if your symptoms are the result of a cold or the flu is to have your doctor run a series of tests. Because the symptoms and treatments for a cold and the flu are very similar, a diagnosis only helps you make sure you’re paying more attention to your recovery.

There's no cure for the common cold. Antibiotics are of no use against cold viruses and shouldn't be used unless there's a bacterial infection. Treatment is directed at relieving signs and symptoms.

Pros and cons of commonly used cold remedies include:

  • Pain relievers. For fever, sore throat and headache, many people turn to acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or other mild pain relievers. Use acetaminophen for the shortest time possible and follow label directions to avoid side effects.

Use caution when giving aspirin to children or teenagers. Children and teenagers recovering from chickenpox or flu-like symptoms should never take aspirin. This is because aspirin has been linked to Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially life-threatening condition, in such children.

Consider giving your child over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications designed for infants or children. These include acetaminophen (Tylenol, Infant's Feverall, others) or ibuprofen (Pediatric Advil, Motrin Infant, others) to ease symptoms.

  • Decongestant nasal sprays. Adults can use decongestant drops or sprays for up to five days. Prolonged use can cause rebound symptoms. Children younger than six shouldn't use decongestant drops or sprays.
  • Cough syrups. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends against giving OTC cough and cold medicines to children younger than age 4. There's no good evidence that these remedies are beneficial and safe for children.

If you give cough or cold medicines to an older child, follow the label directions. Don't give your child two medicines with the same active ingredient, such as an antihistamine, decongestant or pain reliever. Too much of a single ingredient could lead to an accidental overdose.

There's no vaccine for the common cold, but you can take common-sense 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.

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