There are millions of cases of the common cold in the United States every year, with an average of two or three every year among adults and even more among children. In fact, they’re the most frequent reason for absences from school (in kids) or work (in adults).
What causes the cold, what are its effects, and how can it be prevented and treated? Here’s a look.
Causes and Risk Factors
The common cold can be caused by a number of different types of viruses, with the most common of these known as rhinovirus. The cold is spread through droplets in the air that come from the mouth of a sick person (through sneezing, coughing or speaking) or through physical contact, and can enter a new body through the mouth, eyes or nose. It can also be spread through contaminated objects touched by people who are sick, and passed on to someone who isn’t.
There are several factors that can increase your chances of coming down with the common cold:
- • Age: Children under six years old, especially children in public child-care programs (with lots of other children and more chances for contaminants to spread), are at higher risk.
- • Season: All people are at higher risk of the common cold during the fall and winter, but it’s possible to get it any time of the year.
- • Smoking: People who smoke are at higher risk, and they may have colds that feel more severe or last longer.
- • Immune system: If your immune system is weak due to a chronic illness or other cause, you’ll have a higher risk of catching a cold if your body can’t fight off certain weaker viruses on its own.
- • Exposure: For the same reason children in child-care facilities are at risk, all people can be at risk in areas with lots of people.
The symptoms of a common cold usually show up about one to three days after you’re exposed to a virus, and they are different for each individual. Symptoms can include:
- • Cough or sore throat
- • Congestion
- • Runny or stuffy nose, and sneezing
- • Fever
- • Body aches, headache and general lack of energy
Most of the time, these symptoms go away in a week to 10 days with some basic treatment and proper rest. However, the common cold can lead to certain complications, such as ear infections, asthma attacks, sinusitis or other infections. If you or your child experiences any of the following symptoms, see a doctor immediately:
- • Fever over 101.3 degrees Fahrenheit (100.4 degrees Fahrenheit for children up to 12 weeks)
- • Fever lasting over five days (over two days for children)
- • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- • Wheezing
- • Severe throat, head or sinus pain
- • For children: Extreme drowsiness, moodiness, ear pain or lack of appetite
Because the common cold can spread so easily, taking preventive measures is the best way to keep yourself from getting one. There are several habits you should adopt, especially during colder months when the cold is more common:
- • Wash hands: Using both soap and water, clean your hands often and for 20 seconds per washing or more. You can use hand sanitizer if soap and water aren’t available, but this is not a permanent alternative.
- • Less touch: If you haven’t washed your hands recently, avoid touching your nose, mouth or eyes.
- • Disinfect: Use disinfectant wipes in the house, especially if you have children or if anyone in the house has a cold already.
- • Less contact: Stay away from other people who are sick, and avoid sharing any common items with them.
- • Sneezing habits: Even if it’s only allergies, try to always sneeze into a tissue, and throw them out right away. Teach kids to do the same, or to cough into their elbow (not their hands) when they sneeze.
Most of the treatment for the common cold involves limiting symptoms. There is no cure, and antibiotics don’t work because the cold is a virus rather than a bacteria. Pain relievers can help for any discomfort (there might be certain limitations for children), and decongestants can help adults with nasal symptoms for up to five days. Some adults also take cough syrup.
In addition, there are many popular home or alternative methods many people use to make themselves more comfortable during a cold. There isn’t scientific proof that these methods actually reduce the length of the disease, but many people find them helpful for comfort and pain relief.
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“Common cold.” The Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/common-cold/home/ovc-20199807
“Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/features/rhinoviruses/