by Charles H. Booras, MD


Description: The common cold is caused by a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract. It causes irritation and drainage in any or all of the airways including the nose, sinuses, throat, voice box, and often the bronchial tubes. Most colds last about 5 to 10 days and will gradually disappear. Well over 100 different types of cold viruses are known and each virus may have a slightly different pattern of symptoms and severity. Infection may be facilitated by excessive fatigue, emotional stress and other factors that weaken the body's immune defenses.

Rhinovirus. An electron micrograph.

Signs and Symptoms: Colds usually begin abruptly. Throat discomfort is often first, followed by sneezing, runny nose, nasal congestion and decreased energy level. Fever is usually absent or low grade (101 or less) although children and infants may have fever up to 102 degrees. Chest symptoms are variable, and when they are present it is commonly referred to as a "chest cold". Mucous can become thick and coughing, if present, can last two to four weeks. Green or yellow sputum or nasal secretions, if persistent longer than 3 days, suggest a secondary bacterial bronchitis or sinusitis.

Treatment and Prevention: There is no treatment to cure viral infections, including the cold. Only the symptoms can be treated. The best infection fighting mechanism known to man is our bodies own immune system. Treatment should be geared towards allowing ourselves to rest so that we are in the best possible condition to fight the infection naturally.

Colds are contagious for about the first four days of symptoms. The virus can be transmitted by airborne saliva and is easily spread when people are together in groups in enclosed areas, so be sure to cover your cough or sneeze. Avoid close physical contact with others. The contagion also can be physically transmitted from one person to another, so hand washing is a very important way to limit the spread of the virus.

No known medication will shorten the duration of a cold. Antibiotics are ineffective against the cold virus and flu shots will neither help nor prevent a cold. Non-prescription medications such as decongestants, cough syrups and aspirin substitutes (such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen or naproxen or ketoprofen) can provide relief for the symptoms produced by the infection, but should be used judiciously and according to package instructions. Listed below are self-care suggestions for making yourself more comfortable during a cold and for preventing the onset of more serious complications.  

  • Rest and stay warm; increase your hours of sleep.  
  • A saline (salt water) nasal spray may be used to keep nasal passages moist and clean. A medicated nasal spray should not be used.
  • Increase your intake of fluids (water, juices, decaffeinated teas) to relieve cough and fever.  
  • Gargle with warm salt water to ease the discomfort of a sore throat.  
  • Use hard candies or cough drops to soothe a dry throat and to inhibit coughing.  
  • Inhale steam from a hot bath or shower to relieve congestion in your nose, head, and chest.  
  • Take two aspirin substitutes as directed by the manufacturer to help relieve fever, sore throat, aches and pains. 
  • Avoid close contact with others and if possible, curtail normal activities, including physical exercise, until your symptoms disappear.  
  • Avoid smoking during your cold, as it will cause further irritation to your upper respiratory tract.

Complications: Medical treatment is rarely needed for a common cold; however, bacteria that live in the nose and throat can gain a foothold and cause secondary infection such as ear infections, bacterial sinusitis and bacterial bronchitis. If you develop any of the following symptoms, you should seek medical attention, since these complications may indicate a more serious infection:  

  • Prolonged fever of over 102 degrees F  
  • Persistent or thick mucus-producing cough  
  • Chest pain or shortness of breath  
  • Persistent earache  
  • Difficulty swallowing  
  • Body rash  
  • Swollen lymph nodes


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