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Common cold

Definition

The common cold usually causes a runny nose, nasal congestion, and sneezing. You may also have a sore throat, cough, headache, or other symptoms.

Alternative Names

Upper respiratory infection - viral; Cold

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

It is called 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.

Colds are the most common reason that children miss school and parents miss work. Parents often get colds from their children.

Children can get many colds every year. They usually get them from other children. A cold can spread quickly through schools or daycares.

Colds can occur at any time of the year, but they are most common in the winter or rainy seasons.

A cold virus spreads through tiny, air droplets that are released when the sick person sneezes, coughs, or blows their nose.

You can catch a cold if:

  • A person with a cold sneezes, coughs, or blows their nose near you
  • You touch your nose, eyes, or mouth after you have touched something contamined by the virus, such as a toy or doorknob.

People are most contagious for the first 2 to 3 days of a cold. A cold is usually not contagious after the first week.

Symptoms

Cold symptoms usually start about 2 or 3 days after you came in contact with the virus, although it could take up to a week. Symptoms mostly affect the nose.

The most common cold symptoms are:

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

Depending on which virus caused your cold, you may also have:

Treatment

Get plenty of rest and drink plenty of fluids.

COLD MEDICINES

Over-the-counter cold and cough medicines may help ease symptoms in adults and older children. They do not make your cold go away faster, but can help you feel better.

Over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold medicines are not recommended for children under age 6. Talk to your doctor before giving your child any type of over-the-counter or nonprescription cough medicine, even if the label says it is made for children. These medicines likely will not work for children, and may have serious side effects.

ANTIBIOTICS

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 normally occurs with a cold after a few days. If it does not get better within 10 to 14 days, then your doctor may prescribe antibiotics.

OTHER MEDICINES

Newer antiviral drugs used to relieve flu symptoms do not help reduce cold symptoms.

ALTERNATIVE TREATMENTS

Alternative treatments that have been used for colds include:

  • Chicken soup
  • Vitamin C
  • Zinc
  • Echinacea

Chicken soup has been used for treating common colds for centuries. It may really help. The heat, fluid, and salt may help you fight the infection.

Vitamin C is a popular remedy for the common cold. Research shows it does not prevent colds in many adults, but people who take vitamin C regularly seem to have slightly shorter colds and milder symptoms. Taking vitamin C after your have a cold doesn't seem to be helpful.

Zinc supplements taken for at least 5 days may reduce your risk of catching the common cold. Taking a zinc supplement within 24 hours of when you first feel sick may make your cold symptoms less severe and help them go away faster.

Echinacea is a herb that has been promoted as a natural way for preventing colds and the flu, and for making symptoms less severe. However, high-quality studies have failed to show that this herb helps prevent or treat colds.

Alternative treatments are safe for most people. However, some alternative treatments may cause side effects or allergic reactions. For example, some people are allergic to echinacea. Herbs and supplements may also change the way other medicines work. Talk to your doctor before trying an alternative treatment.

Expectations (prognosis)

The fluid from your runny nose will become thicker and may turn yellow or green within a few days. This is normal, and not a reason for antibiotics.

Most cold symptoms usually go away within a week. If you still feel sick after 7 days, see your doctor to rule out a sinus infection, allergies, or other medical problem.

Complications

Colds are the most common trigger of asthma symptoms in children with asthma.

A cold may also lead to:

Calling your health care provider

Try treating your cold at home first. Call your doctor if:

  • Breathing becomes difficult
  • Your symptoms get worse or do not improve after 7 to 10 days

Prevention

Here are five proven ways to help lower your chances of getting sick:

  • Always wash your hands: Children and adults should wash hands after nose-wiping, diapering, and using the bathroom, and before eating and preparing food.
  • Disinfect: Clean commonly touched surfaces (such as sink handles, door knobs, and sleeping mats) with an EPA-approved disinfectant.
  • Choose smaller daycare classes: Attending a day care where there are six or fewer children dramatically reduces the spread of germs.
  • Use instant hand sanitizers: These products use alcohol to destroy germs. They are an antiseptic, not an antibiotic, so resistance can't develop. A little dab will kill 99.99% of germs without any water or towels.
  • Use paper towels instead of sharing cloth towels.

The immune system helps your body fight off infection. 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 colds.
  • Avoid unnecessary antibiotics: Using antibiotics too often leads to antibiotic resistance. The more you use antibiotics, the more likely the medicines may not work as well for you in the future. That means, you have a higher chance of getting sick with longer, more stubborn infections.
  • Breastfeed: Breast milk is known to protect against respiratory tract infections in children, even years after you stop breastfeeding. Kids who are not breastfeed get about five times more ear infections than those who are.
  • Drink water: Fluids help your immune system work properly.
  • Eat yogurt: Certain yogurst contains "active cultures," or beneficial bacteria that helps prevent colds.
  • Get enough sleep: Not getting enough sleep makes you more likely to get sick.

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. Lancet Infect Dis. 2007;7(7):473-80.

Hemilä H, Chalker E, Douglas B. Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2007, Issue 3. Art. No.: CD000980.

Singh M, Das RR. Zinc for the common cold. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2011, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD001364.


Review Date: 1/8/2012
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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