Caught the Common Cold? How to Treat & Prevent Its Spread
The common cold is a frequent and regular viral infection of the nose and throat. Conditions are usually harmless and symptoms resolve within two weeks.
What is a common cold?
The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract, which includes the nose, mouth, sinuses, throat, and larynx. There are over 200 viruses that can cause upper respiratory infections, and usually the exact virus behind a cold is never known.
The common cold is, of course, very common. Americans catch over one billion colds per year, with adults averaging two to three per year, and children averaging as many as eight colds per year.
The common cold usually lasts about a week, and is self-limited (meaning it goes away on its own). Although there is no treatment for the common cold, there are many strategies for prevention and improvement of symptoms.
The common cold is treated symptomatically. Antibiotics are not effective in children or adults. In children, over-the-counter cough & cold combination medications can be harmful and have no proven benefits so these should not be used in children under 4. Self treatment options that are safe to use in young children are saline drops or nasal spray and acetaminophen in the right dosage as advised by your pharmacist.
Common cold symptoms
Symptoms of the common cold usually appear one to three days after exposure to the virus. They usually peak two to four days after onset and resolve in seven to 10 days. Nevertheless, some people (especially children) may experience cold symptoms for weeks at a time. They can range in severity and vary from person to person, but usually involve:
- Runny/stuffy nose: Nasal secretions are often clear or yellow in color. Green or bloody secretions may indicate a more serious illness like a bacterial sinus infection.
- Sore throat
- Nasal Congestion
- Fever: A temperature above 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit
- Malaise: Feelings of weakness or general illness
Common cold causes
More than 200 types of viruses can cause the common cold, in which rhinovirus is the most common cold-causing virus. There is no need to test for a virus, and most of the time, the exact virus causing the cold is unknown.
Cold-causing viruses can enter the body through the nose, mouth, or eyes, and touching any of these areas may increase your chances of catching a cold after exposure to the virus. These viruses can enter the body in two ways:
- Airborne: They can spread through the air via droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks.
- Contact: They can spreadvia skin-to-skin contact with an infected person or from contact with contaminated objects such as utensils, towels or cellphones touched by an infected person.
Who is most likely to be affected
The factors below can increase the likelihood of catching a cold:
- Age: Children are at a greater risk of contracting colds because many of them spend time in daycare or other childcare settings where they are more likely to be exposed to cold-causing viruses.
- Time of year: Both children and adults are more susceptible to colds in fall and winter, but a cold can occur at any time throughout the year.
- Weakened immune system: People with conditions that weaken their immune systems, like chronic illnesses, or those on medications that suppress the immune system have a greater chance of catching colds and other infectious illnesses.
- Exposure: If you are around many people, such as at school or on an airplane, you are more likely to be exposed to viruses that cause colds.
- Smoking: Smokers are likely to contract colds, and their colds may be more severe as well, since smoking can damage the body's natural defense against infections.
Treatment options and prevention for common cold
There is no cure for the common cold and there is no vaccine. It is important to know that antibiotics do not work against viruses, and will not help with symptoms of a common cold.
Treatment is aimed at remedying symptoms and allowing the body to rest. Options include over-the-counter pain medication, over-the-counter cold-relief medication, cough syrup or honey, and supplemental methods. There are also many preventative methods that are highly effective when followed.
Over-the-counter pain-relief medication
Over-the-counter pain medication, also known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) can help combat the fever, sore throat, and headache associated with the common cold. Many of these drugs can have harmful side effects if used incorrectly, so always follow the instructions. Always consult your physician before trying a new method to treat your cold. Options include:
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol): Chronic use can result in liver failure.
- Ibuprofen (Advil): This can cause stomach and digestive problems.
- Naproxen (Aleve)
- Aspirin: This can cause a deadly condition called "Reye's" syndrome when given to children, in which the liver and brain swell.
Over-the-counter cold-relief medications
Various decongestants may provide relief from symptoms like runny nose, and may come as capsules, syrups, nasal sprays, or in other formulations. Always read the label and follow the instructions. Most products, like "Nyquil," "Dayquil," and other name brands, will contain multiple active ingredients, so use caution when combining medications.
Cough syrup and honey
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) strongly recommends against giving OTC cough and cold medicines to children younger than age 4. There is no good evidence that these remedies are beneficial and safe for children. One good alternative to cough syrup in children or adults is natural honey, which one study found was equally as effective.
There is no proof that supplements can shorten or improve your cold. However, all of the following methods are safe and inexpensive.
- Vitamin C: Emergen-C or Airborne
- Vitamin D
- Garlic, ginseng, or echinacea
- Zinc supplements: Zicam may reduce the number of colds per year, and may make a cold go away faster.
Even though there is no cure or vaccine for the common cold, there are many things you can do to prevent and slow the spread of cold viruses, such as:
- Wash your hands: Clean your hands thoroughly and often with soap and water, especially after leaving the restroom, using tissues, or sneezing or coughing into your hands. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Disinfect: Clean kitchen, bathroom and office countertops with disinfectant, especially when someone around you has a cold. Wipe hand-held items like telephones, electronics, and office supplies clean with a wipe or by using hand-sanitizer.
- Shield your sneeze and cough: Always try to sneeze or cough into a tissue. If tissues are not available, sneeze or cough into the bend of the elbow or sleeve of a shirt. This is always better than sneezing or coughing directly into the hands.
- Don't share things that go in your mouth: Glasses, utensils, straws, toothbrushes, etc. should not be shared with other family members or friends.
When to seek further consultation for common cold
Usually colds are harmless and go away on their own. However, in some cases, the extent and duration of what may seem to be cold symptoms are sign of a different, more severe condition. These symptoms also differ in adults and children, so pay attention to the signs below and seek medical attention if you or a loved one experiences them.
If the following signs and symptoms occur, seek medical attention:
- Fever greater than 101.3 degrees Fahrenheit (38.5 degrees Celsius)
- Fever lasting five days or more or returning after a fever-free period
- Shortness of breath
- Severe sore throat, headache, or sinus pain
If the following signs and symptoms occur, seek medical attention:
- Fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) in newborns up to 12 weeks old
- 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
Questions your doctor may ask to determine common cold
- Do you look very sick (pale, sweaty, sleepy, unusual etc.)?
- Any fever today or during the last week?
- Has your cough gotten better or worse?
- How long has your cough been going on?
- Is your cough constant or come-and-go?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
Dr. Gambrah-Lyles is a resident pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine (2019). She graduated cum laude and received her undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and Spanish from Washington University in St. Louis (2013). Her research explores the intersections between neurology, public health, and infectious disease. She has investigated nutrition and cerebral palsy in Botswana, and completed a year-long project in Brazil, researching growth and developmental outcomes of Zika virus infection in pediatric patients as a Doris Duke International Scholar. Dr. Gambrah-Lyles speaks four languages, loves staying active, and enjoys sharing her love for medicine through teaching and writing.
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