Living with
the Common Cold

What is the Common Cold?

The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract, mainly affecting the nose and throat (pharynx), but also the sinuses, ears, larynx (voice box) and even the trachea and main bronchi (passageways into the lungs). It is also known as acute coryza.

 

While extremely common, colds are usually mild and self-limiting (affected people usually recover relatively quickly and easily without medical treatment).
Colds are one of the most common causes of upper respiratory tract infections which account for a significant proportion of morbidity (illness) in any population, responsible for large numbers of doctor visits and work- or school-days missed due to illness.

 

Colds can affect anyone at any time of the year, unlike flu (influenza) which is usually seasonal.

The viruses that cause the common cold are incredibly contagious, meaning they spread from person-to-person very easily. Practicing good hygiene (especially handwashing) is essential to prevent yourself from catching the cold.

It is quite possible to get multiple bouts of the cold in a single year. Adults on average have two to three colds per year, but children often get many more, sometimes up to 12 recurrences of the cold a year.

How do you know you have a cold?

While symptoms of the common cold are usually mild, it might not feel that way to a sick person who generally feels very poorly.
The signs and symptoms of a cold usually appear one to three days after being exposed to, and infected with, the cold-causing virus.

Signs and symptoms may last anywhere between 2-14 days (usually of longer duration in children, the elderly and those already in poor health), and can include:

  • Dry and/or sore, scratchy throat
  • A “runny” nose (this is usually a clear discharge but may become yellow or green as the cold progresses – this colour change is usually normal and is not a sign of secondary bacterial infection)
  • Congestion (blocked or “stuffy” nose and/or mild earache)
  • Sneezing
  • Dry cough and/or hoarseness
  • Slight body aches
  • Mild headache
  • Mild fever
  • Generally feeling unwell (malaise) which may include loss of appetite and fatigue
  • Weakened sense of taste or smell

When to see your doctor

For adults: Seek medical attention if you have:

  • A fever greater than 38.5 ℃ (101.3 F) and/or lasting five days or longer and/or recurring fever after a fever-free period
  • Severe or unusual shortness of breath and/or chest pain
  • Severe or unusual wheezing
  • Severe sore throat, severe headache or sinus pain
  • Confusion

For children: Seek medical attention right away if your child has any of the following:

  • Symptoms lasting more than 10 days
  • A fever of 38 ℃ (100 F) 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
  • Headache or a stiff or sore neck
  • Severe cough
  • Wheezing
  • Earache
  • Confusion
  • Extreme fussiness
  • Unusual drowsiness or lethargy
  • Lack of appetite.

What causes the common cold?

You can catch the cold from any of more than 200 different but common and very contagious viruses. Generally though, around 50 % of colds are caused by the rhinovirus which usually infects and multiplies in the nasal passages.

 

You become infected when a cold virus enters your body through your mouth, nose or eyes. The virus most often spreads through the air in droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks.
However, sometimes infected bodily fluids can land on inanimate surfaces and objects, like eating utensils or desks and doorknobs, that have been touched by infected people. If you touch the contaminated objects or surfaces, the virus transfers onto your hands and you then touch their nose, mouth or eyes, becoming infected yourself. In fact, a cold virus can live on inanimate objects and surfaces for several hours, remaining as a threat of infection during that time.

 

Typically, an infected person can be contagious anywhere from one to two days before they begin to show symptoms and until they no longer have symptoms. However, an infected person is usually most contagious during the initial two to three days of illness.

 

You are more at risk of catching the common cold if you have any of the following risk factors:

  • Age: Infants and young children have not yet developed immunity to many of the viruses that cause the cold. Children younger than six years old are at the greatest risk of catching colds, especially if they spend a significant part of their day at day-care centres where they may be exposed to countless other infected children.
  • A weakened immune system: Individuals with a poorly functioning immune system and chronic illnesses (like diabetes or heart disease) are more likely to catch the cold. Also, individuals with excessive fatigue, who do not get enough sleep, or who are under excessive stress or emotional distress, may be more susceptible to catching the common cold.
  • Smoking: You are more likely to catch a cold, and to have more-severe symptoms, if you smoke or are often exposed to cigarette smoke. Smoking irritates the mucous membranes of the nose, sinuses and lungs, which may make the respiratory tract more susceptible to infections.
  • Exposure: If you are around many people, such as at work, during conferences or on an airplane, you are likely to be exposed to cold-causing viruses. Also, when people are in closed, crowded areas, like hospitals, schools, and day-care centres, there is an increased risk because of close contact between people.
  • Pregnancy: Pregnant women, especially those in the second or third trimesters, as well as recently postpartum women (women who have given birth in the last one to two weeks) are more likely to catch the cold and to develop complications.

 

While people are more susceptible to colds in winter, you can get a cold at any time of the year. The cold weather itself does may not make you more susceptible to cold-causing viruses directly. Rather, in colder months, people spend more time indoors and in close contact with each other, facilitating the spread of the virus to one another. However, the low humidity during colder, winter months may also increase the prevalence of the cold-causing viruses, which seem to survive better in these conditions.

What is the difference between the common cold and the flu?

Many people confuse the common cold and the flu (short for influenza).
The flu is caused by the influenza virus, while the common cold is generally caused by the rhinovirus.

Many symptoms of the common cold and flu are similar; however, people with the cold typically have a milder illness compared to those with the flu. People with the flu usually appear more ill and have a more sudden and extreme onset of illness with fever, significant chills and body aches, headache, a more persistent dry cough and substantial weakness.
There is also more risk of illness worsening and secondary bacterial infection occurring when you have the flu.

How do you prevent the common cold?

There is no vaccine for the common cold, therefore you must practise basic hygiene and other common-sense practices diligently in order to avoid catching and spreading the cold:

  • Wash your hands: You must wash your hands frequently and thoroughly, as this destroys the viruses you may have picked up from contaminated surfaces.
    Teach your children the importance of handwashing.
    Wash your hands with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based (at least 60% alcohol) hand sanitizer.
  • Cough hygiene: Cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze to prevent spreading the virus to those around you. A sneeze can spray a fine mist of contagious droplets almost 2 metres far.
    You can cough or sneeze into your elbow, hand or a tissue. Discard used tissues right away.
    Always wash your hands after coughing or sneezing.
  • Regularly disinfect frequently touched surfaces or objects (like doorknobs, light switches, desks, keyboards and cell phones) with an effective product suitable for that surface.
  • Don’t share personal items like drinking glasses, eating utensils, towels or handkerchiefs, with other family members or people you live with.
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who is sick.
  • Keep yourself generally healthy: Eat a healthy, balanced diet and get enough exercise and sleep.
    It is worth remembering that no single food or supplement can prevent you catching the cold; however, nutritional deficiencies are known to cause weakened immune systems and are associated with increased risk of infections. A balanced diet is essential for good immune functioning. There are many nutrients (vitamins and minerals) that are involved with the normal functioning of the immune system, including copper, folate, iron, selenium, zinc and vitamins A, B6, B12, C and D. Specifically, zinc and vitamins C and D are known to play a central role in maintaining immunity and are used by immune cells directly to fight off respiratory infections, with supplementation often required in severe disease.
    Immune system benefits may also be gained by using certain supplements containing some plant-derived products like Echinacea and black elderberry.
    Therefore, experts do not recommend any one food or nutrient over another; instead, they encourage eating a variety of foods, particularly those rich in vitamins and minerals, like fruit and vegetables, to maintain a healthy, balanced diet. You can access delicious and healthy recipes from Cooking from the Heart here.
  • Lifestyle modifications: Stopping smoking or reducing the number of cigarettes you smoke per day, as well as getting enough sleep and managing stress, may decrease susceptibility to acquiring the common cold.

Can antibiotics be used to treat a cold?

No, antibiotics play no role in treating the common cold which is caused by a group of viruses. Antibiotics are only effective against diseases caused by bacteria. Antibiotics can also be dangerous to use if not prescribed properly. Furthermore, using antibiotics when they are not necessary leads to antibiotic resistance.

How can you treat your cold symptoms?

There is no cure for the common cold. However, the common cold is usually self-limiting and typically resolves relatively quickly without the use of medications. Some home remedies and medical treatments can help to alleviate the symptoms associated with the common cold.

Home treatment for upper respiratory infections includes getting plenty of rest and keeping hydrated (drinking plenty of water).

There are many common over-the-counter medications such as throat lozenges, throat sprays and cough syrups which can help relieve symptoms; although, these remedies cannot help you get better faster or shorten the duration of the cold. Gargling with warm saltwater may help relieve a sore throat in some people.
Decongestant medications, or nasal sprays, and antihistamines may be used for nasal symptoms. Over-the-counter medications must be taken with care and as directed, as they can have other effects than those desired. Pregnant women should discuss the safety of using over-the-counter medications with their pharmacist or healthcare provider before use.

Paracetamol-based and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medications, such as ibuprofen, are common over-the-counter medicines that can help alleviate and manage fever, sore throat, headache and body pain. Consult your healthcare provider or pharmacist about using these medications.

The treatment of the cold in infants and small children is also supportive.
It is especially important to allow sick children to get enough rest and to ensure they do not become dehydrated.
Importantly, consult with your doctor or pharmacist about using over-the-counter medication and pain killers in children. You can often get special metered sprays or syrups instead of tablets to treat children with.
Pain killer medication, like NSAIDs and those that are paracetamol-based, must only be used in consultation with your pharmacist or healthcare provider, and the dosage will have to be adjusted for your child’s age and weight (these details can often be found on the bottle or medication packaging).
Do not use aspirin or aspirin-containing medications in children or teenagers before consulting your doctor because it may cause serious, unwanted side-effects.
Finally, most over-the-counter cough and cold medications for infants and young children are not recommended for use in children younger than four years of age.

Common alternative treatments to prevent or treat the common cold, include supplements that contain vitamin C, zinc and Echinacea, as well as other herbal remedies. Discuss these treatment options with your pharmacist or healthcare professional before use.

What are the complications associated with the common cold?

  • Acute ear infection (otitis media): This usually occurs when secondary bacterial infection reaches the space behind the eardrum. Typical signs and symptoms include earache, a returning fever and, in some cases, a green or yellow discharge from the nose following a common cold.
  • A cold can trigger an asthma attack or worsen COPD  in those that have chronic bronchitis or emphysema.
  • Acute sinusitis: A common cold that doesn’t resolve can lead to inflammation and infection of the sinuses (sinusitis).
  • Other secondary bacterial infections: These include strep throat (streptococcal pharyngitis), laryngitis/croup, bronchitis and pneumonia or bronchiolitis in children.
    You must see a doctor if you suspect you have any of these infections that may require antibiotic treatment.
Sources

The American Lung Association. Facts about the common cold. Available from: https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/influenza/facts-about-the-common-cold

 

Doerr S. (2019) Common Cold. MedicineNet. Available from https://www.medicinenet.com/common_cold/article.htm

 

Health24. (2017) What is a Cold? Available from:

https://www.health24.com/Medical/Flu/Overview/what-are-colds-20160205-2

 

Mayo Clinic staff. (n.d.) Diseases and Conditions: Common Cold. Mayo Clinic. Available from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/common-cold/symptoms-causes/syc-20351605

 

Mayo Clinic staff. (n.d.) Diagnosis and Treatment: Common Cold. Mayo Clinic. Available from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/common-cold/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20351611

 

Choi N. (2017) All about the common cold. Available from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/166606

 

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019) Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others. US National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease (NCIRD). Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/features/rhinoviruses/index.html

 

Ismail H & Schellak N. (2017) Colds and flu – an overview of the management. South African Family Practice. Available from: https://safpj.co.za/index.php/safpj/article/view/4704

 

Johns Hopkins Medicine. (n.d.) Upper Respiratory Tract Infection (URI or Cold?). Available from: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/upper-respiratory-infection-uri-or-common-cold

 

Bomar P, Koutsothanasis G, Thomas M. (2020) Upper Respiratory Tract Infection. US Natl Lib of Med. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK532961/

 

Harding M. (2016) Common Cold. Patient info. Available from: https://patient.info/chest-lungs/cough-leaflet/common-cold-upper-respiratory-tract-infections

 

WebMD. (n.d.) Cold, Flu, and Cough Health Centre. Available from: https://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/default.htm

 

Cohen S, Doyle W, Alper C, Janicki-Deverts D, and Turner R. (2009) Sleep Habits and Susceptibility to the Common Cold. Arch Intern Med; 169(1):62–67. Available from: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/414701

 

Brody J. (1998) A Cold Fact: High Stress Can Make You Sick. New York Times. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/1998/05/12/science/a-cold-fact-high-stress-can-make-you-sick.html

 

Cohen, S, Tyrrell D and Smith A. (1991) Psychological Stress and Susceptibility to the Common Cold. N Engl J Med; 325:606-612. Available from: https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM199108293250903

 

Harvard Medical School Health Publishing. (2014) How to boost your immune system. Available from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/how-to-boost-your-immune-system

 

MedlinePlus (n.) Common Cold. Available from: https://medlineplus.gov/commoncold.html

 

Parker-Pope T. (2020) Can I Boost My Immune System? The New York Times. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/10/well/live/can-i-boost-my-immune-system.html

 

Davison G. (2014) Nutritional and Physical Activity Interventions to Improve Immunity. Am J Lifestyle Med. Available from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6124954/

 

Reynolds G. (2020) How Exercise May Affect Your Immunity. The New York Times. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/04/well/move/exercise-immunity-infection-coronavirus.html

 

Campell J. & Turner J. (2018) Debunking the Myth of Exercise-Induced Immune Suppression: Redefining the Impact of Exercise on Immunological Health Across the Lifespan. Frontiers in Immunology. Available from https://doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2018.00648

 

Maginni S. et al. (2017) Vitamins C, D and Zinc: Synergistic Roles in Immune Function and Infections. Vitamins and Minerals. Available from: https://www.omicsonline.org/open-access/vitamins-c-d-and-zinc-synergistic-roles-in-immune-function-and-infections-2376-1318-1000167.php?aid=92887

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Sources

The American Lung Association. Facts about the common cold. Available from: https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/influenza/facts-about-the-common-cold

 

Doerr S. (2019) Common Cold. MedicineNet. Available from https://www.medicinenet.com/common_cold/article.htm

 

Health24. (2017) What is a Cold? Available from:

https://www.health24.com/Medical/Flu/Overview/what-are-colds-20160205-2

 

Mayo Clinic staff. (n.d.) Diseases and Conditions: Common Cold. Mayo Clinic. Available from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/common-cold/symptoms-causes/syc-20351605

 

Mayo Clinic staff. (n.d.) Diagnosis and Treatment: Common Cold. Mayo Clinic. Available from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/common-cold/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20351611

 

Choi N. (2017) All about the common cold. Available from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/166606

 

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019) Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others. US National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease (NCIRD). Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/features/rhinoviruses/index.html

 

Ismail H & Schellak N. (2017) Colds and flu – an overview of the management. South African Family Practice. Available from: https://safpj.co.za/index.php/safpj/article/view/4704

 

Johns Hopkins Medicine. (n.d.) Upper Respiratory Tract Infection (URI or Cold?). Available from: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/upper-respiratory-infection-uri-or-common-cold

 

Bomar P, Koutsothanasis G, Thomas M. (2020) Upper Respiratory Tract Infection. US Natl Lib of Med. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK532961/

 

Harding M. (2016) Common Cold. Patient info. Available from: https://patient.info/chest-lungs/cough-leaflet/common-cold-upper-respiratory-tract-infections

 

WebMD. (n.d.) Cold, Flu, and Cough Health Centre. Available from: https://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/default.htm

 

Cohen S, Doyle W, Alper C, Janicki-Deverts D, and Turner R. (2009) Sleep Habits and Susceptibility to the Common Cold. Arch Intern Med; 169(1):62–67. Available from: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/414701

 

Brody J. (1998) A Cold Fact: High Stress Can Make You Sick. New York Times. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/1998/05/12/science/a-cold-fact-high-stress-can-make-you-sick.html

 

Cohen, S, Tyrrell D and Smith A. (1991) Psychological Stress and Susceptibility to the Common Cold. N Engl J Med; 325:606-612. Available from: https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM199108293250903

 

Harvard Medical School Health Publishing. (2014) How to boost your immune system. Available from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/how-to-boost-your-immune-system

 

MedlinePlus (n.) Common Cold. Available from: https://medlineplus.gov/commoncold.html

 

Parker-Pope T. (2020) Can I Boost My Immune System? The New York Times. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/10/well/live/can-i-boost-my-immune-system.html

 

Davison G. (2014) Nutritional and Physical Activity Interventions to Improve Immunity. Am J Lifestyle Med. Available from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6124954/

 

Reynolds G. (2020) How Exercise May Affect Your Immunity. The New York Times. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/04/well/move/exercise-immunity-infection-coronavirus.html

 

Campell J. & Turner J. (2018) Debunking the Myth of Exercise-Induced Immune Suppression: Redefining the Impact of Exercise on Immunological Health Across the Lifespan. Frontiers in Immunology. Available from https://doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2018.00648

 

Maginni S. et al. (2017) Vitamins C, D and Zinc: Synergistic Roles in Immune Function and Infections. Vitamins and Minerals. Available from: https://www.omicsonline.org/open-access/vitamins-c-d-and-zinc-synergistic-roles-in-immune-function-and-infections-2376-1318-1000167.php?aid=92887