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Common Cold
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About The Common Cold:

The common cold, also known as a viral upper respiratory tract infection, is a contagious illness that can be caused by a number of different types of viruses. Because of the great number of viruses that can cause a cold, the body never builds up resistance against all of them. For this reason, colds are a frequent and recurring problem. In fact, on average, preschool children have 9 colds a year; those in kindergarten, 12 colds a year; and adolescents and adults, 7 colds per year.

The Symptoms Of The Common Cold

Symptoms of a common cold include nasal stuffiness and drainage, sore throat, hoarseness, cough, and perhaps a fever and headache. Many people with a cold feel tired and achy. These symptoms typically last from 3-10 days.

How is the common cold spread?

The common cold is spread mostly by hand-to-hand contact. For example, a person with a cold blows or touches his or her nose and then touches someone else who then becomes infected with the virus. Additionally, the cold virus can live on objects such as pens, books, and coffee cups for several hours and can be acquired from such objects. While common sense would suggest that coughing and sneezing spread the common cold, these are actually very poor mechanisms for spreading a cold.

Does it have anything to do with exposure to cold weather?

Going out into the cold weather has no effect on the spread of a cold. The reason that there appears to be a relationship is that people spend more time indoors during the cold winter weather. In fact, however, it is the proximity to other people rather than the temperature outside that seems to be the culprit. For this same reason, children in daycare or kindergarten are particularly prone to having colds.

Antibiotics Do Not Help In The Common Cold:

No. Antibiotics play no role in treating the common cold. Antibiotics only work against illnesses caused by bacteria and colds are caused by viruses. Not only do antibiotics not help, but they can also cause allergic reactions that may be fatal (1:40,000). Further, using antibiotics when they are not necessary has led to the growth of several strains of common bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics (including one that commonly causes ear infections in children). For these and other reasons, it is important to limit the use of antibiotics to situations in which they are necessary. Sometimes, an infection with bacteria can follow the cold virus. Bacterial infections are treated with antibiotics.

Is there anything that can be done at home for the common cold?

Yes, several therapies have been shown to be effective. The most exciting news about the common cold is zinc. In a recent trial, zinc gluconate lozenges reduced the duration of symptoms from a common cold by about 3 days if started within the first 24 hours of symptoms. The dose used was 13.3mg of zinc every 2 hours while awake. This study was done in adults and, while it has shown favorable results, it will require further studies in order to determine optimal recommendations. Zinc is not recommended for children under age 13 unless suggested by your healthcare practitioner. Zinc lozenges are available from most grocery stores and pharmacies. Vitamin C, if taken on a regular basis, can help reduce the duration of symptoms from a common cold. It does not prevent you from getting a cold, however, and starting it after you have a cold doesn't help.

A number of treatments that can ease the symptoms associated with a common cold also exist. Decongestants, such as pseudo ephedrine (Sudafed and others), and nasal sprays (Afrin and others) can help reduce symptoms. Persons with heart disease, poorly controlled high blood pressure, or other illness should contact their physician or other healthcare practitioner prior to using these medications. Additionally, over the counter nasal sprays should not be used for more than 3 days because the nose can become dependent on them and a worse stuffy nose will result when they are discontinued. Antihistamines  may help reduce nasal drainage. Only those antihistamines that can also cause drowsiness seem to work. Again, the elderly or those individuals with other health problems (such as prostate trouble or constipation) should contact their healthcare practitioner before using these medications. Acetaminophen (Tylenol and others) or ibuprofen (Advil and others) can help with the muscle aches. Cough can be controlled with cough syrups containing dextromethorphan. Finally, drink lots of fluids, use throat lozenges for sore throat, and stay in a moist environment.  

When should a doctor or other health care practitioner be consulted?

If you have tried the over-the-counter remedies without any success, several prescription medications are available for nasal stuffiness and cough (for example, ipratropium or cromolyn nasal spray for stuffiness and drainage and benzonatate for cough).

If you have a sore throat with fever and no cold symptoms, you should be seen by your doctor. This type of sore throat is more likely to be a Strep throat or other potentially serious illness.

If you notice facial pain, tooth pain, or yellow drainage from your nose accompanied by a fever, it is possible that you have an infection of the nasal passages  or a dental infection that would benefit from a medical evaluation and a course of antibiotics.

Common Cold At A Glance

  • Common colds are caused by viruses.
  • Going out into the cold weather has no effect on the spread of a cold.
  • Antibiotics do not help the common cold.
  • There are effective home remedies for the common cold.
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