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Common Cold from Mayo Clinic

Original Article:http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/common-cold/DS00056

Common cold

Introduction

A common cold is an infection of your upper respiratory tract — your nose and throat. It's usually harmless, although it may not feel that way. If it's not a runny nose, sore throat and cough, it's watery eyes, sneezing and congestion — or maybe all of the above. In fact, because any one of more than 200 viruses can cause a common cold, symptoms tend to vary greatly.

Unfortunately, if you're like most adults, you're likely to have a common cold two to four times a year. Children, especially preschoolers, may have a common cold as many as six to 10 times annually.

The good news is that you or your child should be feeling better in about a week or two. If symptoms of a common cold aren't improving in that time, see your doctor to make sure you don't have a complication of a bacterial infection in your lungs, sinuses or ears.

Signs and symptoms

Symptoms of a common cold usually appear about one to three days after exposure to a cold virus. Signs and symptoms of a common cold may include:

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Itchy or sore throat
  • Cough
  • Congestion
  • Slight body aches or a mild headache
  • Sneezing
  • Watery eyes
  • Low-grade fever (up to 102 F)
  • Mild fatigue

The discharge from your nose may become thicker and yellow or green in color as a common cold runs its course. What makes a cold different from other viral infections is that you generally won't have a high fever. You're also unlikely to experience significant fatigue from a common cold.

Causes

Although more than 200 viruses can cause a common cold, the rhinovirus is the most common culprit, and it's highly contagious.

A cold virus enters your body through your mouth or nose, but it's likely you also had a "hand" in your own illness. The virus can spread through droplets in the air when someone who is sick coughs, sneezes or talks. But it also spreads by hand-to-hand contact with someone who has a cold or by using shared objects, such as utensils, towels, toys or telephones. Touch your eyes, nose or mouth after such contact or exposure, and you're likely to "catch" a cold.

Risk factors

Infants and preschool children are especially susceptible to common colds because they haven't yet developed resistance to most of the viruses that cause them. But an immature immune system isn't the only thing that makes kids vulnerable. They also tend to spend lots of time with other children and aren't always careful about washing their hands and covering their coughs and sneezes.

As you age, you develop immunity to many of the viruses that cause common colds. You'll have colds less frequently than you did as a child, though you can still come down with a cold when you are exposed to cold viruses, have an allergic reaction that affects your nasal passages or have a weakened immune system, all of which increase your risk of a cold.

Both children and adults are more susceptible to colds in fall and winter, when children are in school and most people are spending a lot of time indoors. In places where there is no winter season, colds are more frequent in the rainy season.

When to seek medical advice

Seek medical attention if you have:

  • Fever of 102 F or higher
  • High fever accompanied by achiness and fatigue
  • Fever accompanied by sweating, chills and a cough with colored phlegm
  • Symptoms that get worse instead of better or last more than about 10 days

In general, children are sicker with a common cold than adults are and often develop complications such as ear infections. Your child doesn't need to see the doctor for a routine common cold. But seek medical attention right away if your child has any of the following signs or symptoms:

  • Fever of 103 F or higher, chills or sweating
  • Fever that lasts more than three days
  • Vomiting or abdominal pain
  • Unusual sleepiness
  • Severe headache
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Persistent crying
  • Ear pain
  • Persistent cough

Complications

  • Acute ear infection (otitis media). A frequent complication of common colds in children, ear infection occurs when bacteria or viruses infiltrate the space behind the eardrum. Typical signs and symptoms include earaches and, in some cases, a green or yellow discharge from the nose or the return of a fever following a common cold. Children who are too young to verbalize their distress may simply cry or sleep restlessly. Ear pulling is not a reliable sign.
  • Wheezing. A cold can trigger wheezing in children with asthma.
  • Sinusitis. In adults or children, a common cold that doesn't resolve may lead to sinusitis — inflammation and infection of the sinuses.
  • Other secondary infections. These include strep throat (streptococcal pharyngitis), pneumonia, bronchitis in adults and croup in children. These infections need to be treated by a doctor.

Treatment

There's no cure for the common cold. Antibiotics are of no use against cold viruses. Over-the-counter (OTC) cold preparations won't cure a common cold or make it go away any sooner, and most have side effects. Here's a look at the pros and cons of some common cold remedies.

  • Pain relievers. For fever, sore throat and headache, many people turn to acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or other mild pain relievers. Keep in mind that acetaminophen can cause liver damage, especially if taken frequently or in larger than recommended doses. Be especially careful when giving acetaminophen to children because the dosing guidelines can be confusing. For instance, the infant-drop formulation is much more concentrated than the syrup commonly used in older children. Never give aspirin to children. It has been associated with Reye's syndrome — a rare but potentially fatal illness.
  • Decongestant nasal sprays. Adults shouldn't use decongestant drops or sprays for more than a few days because prolonged use can cause chronic inflammation of mucous membranes. And children shouldn't use decongestant drops or sprays at all. There's little evidence that they work in young children, and they may cause side effects.
  • Cough syrups. In winter, nonprescription cough syrups practically fly off the drugstore shelves. But the American College of Chest Physicians strongly discourages the use of these medications because they're not effective at treating the underlying cause of cough due to colds. Some contain ingredients that may alleviate coughing, but the amounts are too small to do much good and may actually be harmful for children. In fact, the college recommends against using OTC cough syrups or cold medicines for anyone younger than age 14. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns against giving cough and cold medicines to children younger than age 2. For young children, an accidental overdose could be fatal. Coughs associated with a cold usually last less than two to three weeks. If a cough lingers longer than that, see your doctor.

Prevention

No effective vaccine has been developed for the common cold, which can be caused by many different viruses. But you can take some common-sense precautions to slow the spread of cold viruses:

  • Wash your hands. Clean your hands thoroughly and often, and teach your children the importance of hand washing. Carry a bottle of alcohol-based hand rub containing at least 60 percent alcohol for times when soap and water aren't available. These gels kill most germs, and are safe for older children to use themselves.
  • Scrub your stuff. Keep kitchen and bathroom countertops clean, especially when someone in your family has a common cold. Wash children's toys after play.
  • Use tissues. Always sneeze and cough into tissues. Discard used tissues right away, and then wash your hands carefully. Teach children to sneeze or cough into the bend of their elbow when they don't have a tissue. That way they cover their mouth without using their hands.
  • Don’t share. Don't share drinking glasses or utensils with other family members. Use your own glass or disposable cups when you or someone else is sick. Label the cup or glass with the name of the person with the cold.
  • Steer clear of colds. Avoid close, prolonged contact with anyone who has a cold.
  • Choose your child care center wisely. Look for a child care setting with sound hygiene practices and clear policies about keeping sick children at home. The number of children in the center directly relates to the number of colds to which your child will be exposed.
  • Consider the alternatives. Whether therapies such as vitamin C, echinacea and zinc relieve cold symptoms remains somewhat controversial. Recent research found that moderate doses of vitamin C had no effect in reducing the incidence of the common cold, and that vitamin C had only a very small effect in reducing the duration and severity of cold symptoms. Meanwhile, another study found that taking echinacea significantly reduced the risk of getting a cold, and that it also shortened the duration of symptoms. There is evidence that zinc nasal sprays or lozenges taken at the beginning of a cold may help reduce symptoms.

Self-care

You may not be able to cure your common cold, but you can make yourself as comfortable as possible. These tips may help:

  • Drink lots of fluids. Water, juice, tea and warm soup are all good choices. They help replace fluids lost during mucus production or fever. Avoid alcohol and caffeine, which can cause dehydration, and cigarette smoke, which can aggravate your symptoms.
  • Try chicken soup. Generations of parents have spooned chicken soup into their sick children. Now scientists have put chicken soup to the test, discovering that it does seem to help relieve cold and flu symptoms in two ways. First, it acts as an anti-inflammatory by inhibiting the movement of neutrophils — immune system cells that help the body's response to inflammation. Second, it temporarily speeds up the movement of mucus through the nose, helping relieve congestion and limiting the amount of time viruses are in contact with the nasal lining.
  • Get some rest. Consider staying home from work if you have a fever or a bad cough, or are drowsy from medications. This will give you a chance to rest as well as reduce the chances that you'll infect others. Wear a mask when you have a cold if you live or work with someone with a chronic disease or compromised immune system.
  • Adjust your room's temperature and humidity. Keep your room warm, but not overheated. If the air is dry, a cool-mist humidifier or vaporizer can moisten the air and help ease congestion and coughing. Be sure to keep the humidifier clean to prevent the growth of bacteria and molds.
  • Soothe your throat. Gargling with warm salt water several times a day or drinking warm lemon water with honey may help soothe a sore throat and relieve a cough.
  • Use saline nasal drops. To help relieve nasal congestion, try saline nasal drops. You can buy these drops over-the-counter, and they're effective, safe and nonirritating, even for children. To use in babies, put several drops into one nostril, then immediately bulb suction that nostril. Repeat the process in the opposite nostril. Doing this before feeding your baby will improve your child's ability to nurse or take a bottle and before their bedtime may improve sleep.