The common cold, also known as upper respiratory tract infection, acute viral rhinopharyngitis, acute coryza, or simply cold, is the one of the most prevalent illnesses in America. It is also the number one reason that people visit their doctors. Depending on the type of virus, symptoms and duration of cold will vary. Some people are more susceptible to colds, and might even contract them several times in a given year.
Unfortunately, there is no known cure for the common cold, only relief for its symptoms. However, colds are generally mild and manageable, and often do go away by itself over a short period of time. There are also a variety of over-the-counter and prescribed medications that can help relieve the symptoms as well.
Colds may exhibit any or all of the following symptoms:
In the beginning, mucous is often clear and thin. Over the course of the cold, mucous might thicken and become yellow and greenish in color.
Sneezing might occur constantly throughout the first few days and lessens over the next few days.
This is also known as a “stuffy nose” caused by the build-up of mucous in the nasal passages. Congestion can cause some discomfort in breathing and sleeping at night.
Watery, itchy and red eyes can all be symptoms of the cold. Beware of excessive rubbing, which might allow bacteria to enter eyes and cause an infection.
It is also common to develop headaches or head colds. This might be a result of a natural response in which cytokines are released by your immune system to attack the virus.
Colds can cause soreness or scratchiness in the throat, making it painful to swallow and talk. Sore throat is one of the early symptoms in the onset of a cold. It could worsen if drainage from the nose or the sinuses irritates the throat, causing an infection.
Fevers accompanying colds are usually under 102 degrees and last for a short period of time. A high fever might indicate influenza (flu), which is more severe and lasts for a longer time.
The excess mucous from the cold often irritates the throat, causing a need to cough. This symptom usually exhibits later on over the course of the cold and can persist for a much longer time, even after all other symptoms disappear.
Mild Muscle Aches
There might be a slight aching sensation throughout the body. The aches should be dull and mild enough to allow for normal body movement.
Fevers often cause a general feeling of tiredness and sleepiness. A person with a cold will feel a great need to rest and stay in bed.
A feeling of coldness or the need to shiver might present as a symptom. Chills usually accompany fevers and could persist until body temperature returns to normal.
Also known as pink eye, conjunctivitis is the infection of the conjunctiva, the membrane lining the eyelids. The eyelids might look red and swollen and feel itchy and painful. There is often a yellowish discharge that can crust over the eye.
More than 200 viruses can cause the common cold. Rhinoviruses are the most common, accounting for 10 to 40 percent of all colds. The next most common group of virus is the coronavirus, which accounts for 20% of colds. The respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) causes about 10% of all colds. Colds are mainly spread by direct physical contact.
Sneezing and coughing allow the virus to pass from one person to another. It takes about eight to twelve hours for the virus to replicate after initial contact. For the first cold symptoms to develop, it might take anywhere from ten hours to five days. The duration of a cold is typically a few days to a week. However, a cold can last up to 3 weeks, while symptoms such as coughing can last up to a month.
Children are highly susceptible to colds. They are constantly in physical contact with other children, making it easier for the virus to spread. Also there is a greater tendency for children to rub their eyes and noses, allowing the virus to enter their bodies. Children are more likely to have more severe symptoms such as persistent coughing and pink eye. They are also at a greater risk for ear infections due to the worsening of cold symptoms.
Some people work in fields that put them at a higher risk for colds, such as teachers and other school personnel that work with children. Working in crowded indoor settings or with large groups of people also increases the risk of contracting the virus.
Parents are also more likely to contract colds from their children. Mothers are twice as likely to catch the cold than fathers.
Although smoking does not cause colds, it increases the risk of contracting a cold. It can also extend the duration of a cold for a few days.
The risk for contracting a cold is highest during the wintertime. One of the reasons is that people tend to be indoors more, allowing for the virus to spread quickly from one person to another. Some studies have also shown that the cold virus lives longer in cold air, making winter a likelier time for the virus to spread.
- Wash your hands with soap and water as often as possible. Regular soap works just as well as antibacterial soap. If washing is not possible, the use of hand sanitizers or antibacterial gels can also prevent colds.
- Cover your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze with a tissue or handkerchief. Do not use your hands. Teach children to cough or sneeze into their elbows if they do not have a tissue on hand.
- Smoke less. Smoking can lower your immune system’s ability to fight off viruses, increasing your chances of contracting a cold.
- Limit alcohol consumption. Just like smoking, alcohol also suppresses your immune system, making you more susceptible to the virus.
- Drink more water. Keep your body healthy by constantly rehydrating and drinking water.
- Sleep more. A lack of sleep might weaken your body’s defenses against viruses. Get plenty of rest and stay relaxed.
- Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables contain the necessary vitamins and minerals that can help boost your immune system.
Test and Diagnosis Considerations
There are no specific tests that indicate whether you have the cold virus. Since colds are quite common and nonthreatening, tests are often done to rule out other possibilities instead.
Influenza or the flu is similar to the cold virus, but exhibits much more severe symptoms. Fever is usually much higher (over 102 degrees) and is accompanied with greater body aches and chills. A person with a cold might feel weaker than usual but can still fulfill simple everyday tasks. However, a person with the flu will feel extreme fatigue that prevents him or her from getting out of bed. A person diagnosed with the flu will need more bed rest and a longer absence from work or school.
A strep test might be administered to determine whether a sore throat is caused by the streptococcal bacteria or the cold virus. Strep throat can have serious long term effects and require antibiotics for treatment. Usually there are clear indications for strep, such as yellow and white patches in the back of the throat. There is usually a high fever of over 101 degrees, as oppose to a low fever for colds.
Allergies can also mimic colds, with excessive sneezing, runny nose or nasal congestion. Although either condition will eventually subside by itself, allergies can be treated with antihistamines for quick relief. Allergies often involve itchiness of the eyes and nose, and are not accompanied by fevers and coughs.
Sinusitis is the inflammation or infection of the sinuses. Although colds do not directly cause sinusitis, their symptoms might. An excessive build-up of fluids in the sinus cavity can lead to infection. Usually there is pain around the eyes, nose and cheekbone area. Antibiotics can be used to treat sinusitis.
Herbal and Home Remedies
Although there is no cure for the cold virus, there are many herbal and home remedies that can help relieve symptoms and shorten the duration of a cold. Most of them are safe, cost-effective and worth a try.
Water and Hot Fluids
Although water does not flush the cold out of your system like many people believe, it helps keep your body hydrated. This is especially important when you have a cold, since your body might be worn out and dehydrated. Drinking water can also loosen congestion and build-up in your throat. Hot fluids such as tea help relieve symptoms such as sore throat and congestion.
Probably the most popular remedy for a cold, chicken soup might possibly have some scientific basis for relieving colds. Some studies have shown that chicken soup actually inhibits the inflammation of cells in the nasal passage, clearing up nasal congestion. Even if its effectiveness is debated, chicken soup is still a tasty and soothing remedy for those experiencing sore throat and a loss of appetite.
Gargling with saltwater often helps relieve soreness in the throat. Some believe that the use of salt reduce the swelling of the throat, thereby relieving the pain.
Echinacea is an herbal plant that was first used by Native Americans for its medicinal properties. It has grown in popularity over the recent years and is used as a remedy to fight the common cold. It is also used as a supplement to prevent the onset of colds. The herb is available in pill or liquid form, and can even be made into a tea.
Research findings seemed to yield mixed results. Side effects are often minimal, though some people have developed allergic reactions from taking the supplement. If you experience shortness or difficulty in breathing, swelling or hives, stop taking it immediately. A person with any types of immunodeficiency or is currently on immunosuppressants should avoid taking echinacea. Echinacea is inexpensive and can be easily purchased at a health store or pharmacy.
Zinc helps our bodies maintain a healthy immune system. Some people believe that taking zinc supplements shortens the duration of a cold. The supplement can be taken in as a pill, spray or lozenge. Since different studies yield different data, the results are still inconclusive.
It is advisable to take dosages of zinc as directed on label, since overdosing can be dangerous, interfering with the absorption and metabolism of other minerals in your body. Possible side effects include upset stomach, heartburn and nausea. Although less commonly experienced, some people have also reported fever, mouth sores, fatigue and sore throat. The average cost of the supplement ranges from $3-$25.
Vitamin C is essential to healthy bones, teeth and gums, and can be found in many types of fruits and vegetables. Some studies have shown that a high dose of vitamin C can reduce the severity and duration of the common cold. Others have shown that any benefits shown from the supplement might be a result of the placebo effect, whereby a person gets better from the mere belief that it is effective.
Again, data has been largely inconclusive from the scientific community. Although not dangerous, side effects of high doses of vitamin C include headache, nausea, vomiting, intestinal cramps, fatigue, insomnia, drowsiness and diarrhea. Risk for any major conditions is very low since vitamin C is water soluble and can easily pass through the body. Supplements can also be purchased at any health store and pharmacy in the price range of $5-25, depending on the brand, dosage and quantity.
The neti pot is shaped like a kettle and is used for nasal irrigation, a process that existed centuries ago. The pot is filled with saline solution, which is in then poured into the nostril to flush out mucous and other irritants in the nasal cavity.
To use pot, tilt your head to one side and insert spout into nostril. Gently pour saline solution into nostril, which will then exit through the other nostril. The neti pot provides temporary relief and helps with nasal decongestion. They are available for purchase in pharmacies and homeopathic stores and costs between $10- $20.
Analgesics or pain relievers do not kill the cold virus, but target cold symptoms. The most widely used analgesic is acetaminophen, which is the main ingredient of Tylenol. It is effective in reducing fevers, headaches, and muscle soreness. However, there are possible risks of liver or kidney damage in high dosages. Ibuprofen is another common pain reliever available over-the-counter at the pharmacy.
Popular brands containing ibuprofen as the active ingredient include Advil and Motrin. Side effects are rare and include anxiety, constipation, diarrhea, nausea, insomnia, fatigue and upset stomach. Salicylate or aspirin is also widely used for reducing fever and pain. Similarly to the other analgesics, aspirin has few mild side effects including dizziness, heartburn, nausea, nervousness, and upset stomach.
All three types of pain relievers are available at pharmacies. Both brand name and generics are available and generally have the same intended effect. However, generic brands are usually much less expensive than the name brand and can cost less than half the price.
Cough Suppressants (Antitussives)
Cough suppressants or antitussives can provide relief for continuous coughing by reducing the urge to cough. Many people with the cold feel a tickling and itchy sensation in their throats, inducing them to cough. Antitussives are effective for dry coughs only. For wet coughs, expectorants are much more helpful. Cough suppressants are available in syrup form or as lozenges.
The active ingredient commonly used in cough suppressants is dextromethorphan. However, it has shown to be less effective in cough medications for children. Well-known brands containing dextromethorphan include Robitussin, NyQuil, Dimetapp, and Vicks, which can be purchased at any local pharmacy for under $10.
Possible side effects include itching/rashing, nausea, drowsiness, fever, hallucinations, vomiting, blurred vision and dilated pupils. Codeine is another ingredient used in cough suppressants. Since it is a much stronger ingredient, a prescription is required.
Expectorants, on the other hand, thin out the mucus that is blocking the airways to the lungs. This allows the mucous to be expectorated or coughed up and relieves the congestion in the chest cavity. To determine whether cough suppressants or expectorants should be used, figure out whether the cough is wet or dry. For wet coughs, expectorants are much more effective.
The active ingredient in most expectorants is guaifenesin, found in brands including Mucinex, Tussin, and Robitussin Chest Congestion. It is not recommended for women who are pregnant. Side effects include headache, dizziness, upset stomach, diarrhea and vomiting.
Decongestants relieve the swelling in the nasal passages caused by an increase in mucous, clearing up congestion. They are usually available in two forms: pill or nasal spray. Pseudoephedrine is the active ingredient in decongestant medications such as Sudafed, and is also combined with analgesics to create many cold medications.
There are few side effects, including dizziness, restlessness, increased blood pressure and heart rate and irregular heartbeat. Nasal sprays allow for quick delivery of decongestants through the nose by constricting the blood vessels and openings nasal passages for immediate relief. They contain active ingredients such as oxymetazoline hydrocholoride (as in Afrin and Vicks Sinex) and phenylephrine hydrocholoride (as in Neo Synephrine and Dristan). People with high blood pressure, diabetes, heart conditions and thyroid problems should avoid using the sprays.
Side effects, though uncommon, include dizziness, nervousness, and sleeplessness. Most sprays are available over-the-counter for under $10. However, Nasonex requires a doctor’s prescription.