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Common cold

Definition

The common cold generally involves a runny nose, nasal congestion, and sneezing. You may also have a sore throat, cough, headache, or other symptoms. Over 200 viruses can cause a cold.

Alternative Names

Upper respiratory infection - viral; Cold

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

We call it the “common cold” for good reason. There are over one billion colds in the United States each year. You and your children will probably have more colds than any other type of illness. Children average three to eight colds per year. They continue getting them throughout childhood. Parents often get them from the kids. Colds are the most common reason that children miss school and parents miss work.

Children usually get colds from other children. When a new strain is introduced into a school or day care, it quickly travels through the class.

Colds can occur year-round, but they occur mostly in the winter (even in areas with mild winters). In areas where there is no winter, colds are most common during the rainy season.

When someone has a cold, their runny nose is teeming with cold viruses. Sneezing, nose-blowing, and nose-wiping spread the virus. You can catch a cold by inhaling the virus if you are sitting close to someone who sneezes, or by touching your nose, eyes, or mouth after you have touched something contaminated by the virus.

People are most contagious for the first 2 to 3 days of a cold, and usually not contagious at all by day 7 to 10.

Symptoms

The three most frequent symptoms of a cold are:

Adults and older children with colds generally have a low fever or no fever. Young children, however, often run a fever around 100-102°F.

Once you have "caught" a cold, the symptoms usually begin in 2 or 3 days, though it may take a week. Typically, an irritated nose or scratchy throat is the first sign, followed within hours by sneezing and a watery nasal discharge.

Within 1 to 3 days, the nasal secretions usually become thicker and perhaps yellow or green. This is a normal part of the common cold and not a reason for antibiotics.

Depending on which virus is causing the symptoms, the virus might also cause:

Still, if it is indeed a cold, the main symptoms will be in the nose.

For children with asthma, colds are the most common trigger of asthma symptoms.

Colds are commonly seen before ear infections. However, a child's eardrums are usually congested during a cold, and it's possible to have fluid buildup without a bacterial infection (caled serous otitis media).

The entire cold is usually over all by itself in about 7 days, with perhaps a few lingering symptoms (such as cough) for another week. If it lasts longer, see your doctor to rule out another problem such as a sinus infection or allergies.

Treatment

Get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids. Over-the-counter cold remedies may help ease your symptoms. These won't actually shorten the length of a cold, but can help you feel better.

NOTE: Medical experts have recommended against using cough and cold drugs in children under age 6. Talk to your doctor before your child takes any type of over-the-counter cough medicine, even if it is labeled for children. These medicines likely will not work for children, and they may have serious side effects.

Antibiotics should not be used to treat a common cold. They will not help and may make the situation worse. Thick yellow or green nasal discharge is not a reason for antibiotics, unless it doesn't get better within 10 to 14 days. (In this case, it may be a sinus infection called sinusitis.)

New antiviral drugs can make runny noses completely clear up a day sooner than usual (and begin to ease the symptoms within a day). It is unclear whether the benefits of these drugs outweigh the risks.

Chicken soup has been used for treating common colds at least since the 12th century. It may really help. The heat, fluid, and salt may help you fight the infection.

Alternative treatments that have also been used include:

  • Echinacea
  • Vitamin C
  • Zinc

Expectations (prognosis)

The symptoms usually go away in 7 to 10 days.

Complications

Calling your health care provider

Try home care measures first. Call your health care provider if:

  • Breathing difficulty develops
  • Symptoms worsen or do not improve after 7 to 10 days

Prevention

It might seem overwhelming to try to prevent colds, but you can do it. Children average three to eight colds per year.

Here are five proven ways to reduce exposure to germs:

  • Always wash your hands: Children and adults should wash hands at key moments -- after nose-wiping, after diapering or toileting, before eating, and before preparing food.
  • Disinfect: Clean commonly touched surfaces (sink handles, sleeping mats) with an EPA-approved disinfectant.
  • Switch day care: Using a day care where there are six or fewer children dramatically reduces germ contact.
  • Use instant hand sanitizers: A little dab will kill 99.99% of germs without any water or towels. The products use alcohol to destroy germs. They are an antiseptic, not an antibiotic, so resistance can't develop.
  • Use paper towels instead of shared cloth towels.

Here are six ways to support the immune system:

  • Avoid secondhand smoke: Keep as far away from secondhand smoke as possible It is responsible for many health problems, including millions of colds.
  • Avoid unnecessary antibiotics: The more people use antibiotics, the more likely they are to get sick with longer, more stubborn infections caused by more resistant organisms in the future.
  • Breastfeed: Breast milk is known to protect against respiratory tract infections, even years after breastfeeding is done. Kids who don't breastfeed average five times more ear infections.
  • Drink water: Your body needs fluids for the immune system to function properly.
  • Eat yogurt: The beneficial bacteria in some active yogurt cultures help prevent colds.
  • Get enough sleep: Late bedtimes and poor sleep leave people vulnerable.

References

Turner RB. The common cold. In: Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolin R, eds. Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2009:chap 53.

Simasek M, Blandino DA. Treatment of the common cold. American Family Physician. Feb 2007:75(4).

Shah SA, Sander S, White CM, Rinaldi M, Coleman CI. Evaluation of Echinacea for the prevention and treatment of the common cold: a meta-analysis. The Lancet Infectious Diseases. July 2007:7(7).

This article uses information by permission from Alan Greene, M.D., © Greene Ink, Inc.


Review Date: 1/10/2010
Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, University of Washington, School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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