The common cold, also known as an upper respiratory infection (URI), can be caused by any of more than 200 viruses. These viruses attack and multiply in the cells that line the nose and throat.
Contrary to popular belief, colds are not spread primarily through coughing or sneezing. Colds are more commonly spread hand-to-hand. If you shake, touch, or hold the hand of an infected person (who may not have apparent symptoms) and then touch your eyes or nose, you are likely to infect yourself with the virus. You can also "catch" a cold if you touch your eyes or nose after touching a hard, nonporous surface like a telephone or doorknob shortly after an infected person touches it.
The aches and pains that we usually call a cold are really signs that the body is fighting infection. These signs and symptoms include:
- scratchy or sore throat
- clear nasal discharge
- stuffy nose
- tearing (watery) eyes
- full feeling in the ears
- cough, dry or with clear or white mucus
- general "tired" feeling
Symptoms usually last about a week, although they can last as long as two.
You may not be able to prevent all of the colds coming your way, but by following these precautions, you can keep most of them at bay.
- Wash your hands often and avoid touching your face.
- Use disposable tissues.
- Eat a balanced diet.
- Avoid prolonged contact with people who have colds.
- Keep your stress level down.
- Keep your room humidity moderate to high.
Treatment Dos and Don'ts
Vitamin C and hot soups have been championed as cold remedies. Vitamin C may give some people relief but it remains controversial as a remedy. Hot soups have been shown to temporarily ease nasal congestion, probably because of the effect warm liquids have on mucus.
Every healthy person has an immune system capable of producing cells specifically able to destroy cold viruses. Your body will respond with symptoms three or four days after the cold virus invasion.
At present, most cold care suggestions are aimed at symptoms relief and immune system support. There is no medicine that directly attacks the cold virus. For best results, consider the following:
- Don't treat your cold with an antibiotic. Antibiotics combat bacterial, not viral, infections. Unless your cold has led to a secondary bacterial infection, such as bronchitis or pneumonia, an antibiotic is not only a waste of money but may unnecessarily expose you to the potential side effects of these medications, including severe allergic reactions. Don't ask your health care provider for a prescription for an antibiotic unless your lab tests confirm that you have a bacterial infection or your health care provider finds that your symptoms suggest that you have one.
- Don't smoke. If that is impossible, at least cut back. Smoking further irritates your nasal passages and increases your risk of getting bronchitis or pneumonia.
- Drink lots of non-alcoholic beverages. Liquids, particularly hot liquids, soothe the throat and help loosen secretions, relieving nasal congestion. Caffeine and alcoholic beverages, however, will dehydrate you and otherwise slow your recovery unless used in very small quantities.
- Gargle with salt water to reduce swelling in your throat. Use one teaspoon of salt in a large glass of warm water every four hours.
- Get plenty of rest. Your body needs the time to allow you to recover. Let your body be your guide in determining how much to restrict your activities.
- Take aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen to ease aches and pains and lower fever.
- Inhale warm, moist air to soothe inflamed mucous membranes. To do this, take showers and put a pan of water on your bedroom radiator or use a cool-mist humidifier.
Other Important Information
If your cold doesn't clear up after a week to 10 days, or you have any of the following symptoms, see your health care provider without delay.
- discoloured or bloody mucus from nasal passages
- pain or tenderness around the eyes
- painful swelling of the neck glands
- cough with production of discoloured mucus
- painful breathing, wheezing, or shortness of breath
- severe headache
- fever greater than 100.5ºF for longer than two days
- white patches on the back of the throat or tonsils
- an extremely red throat that is not getting better
- chronic unusual fatigue