Health Library Explorer
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z A-Z Listings Contact Us
Adult Health Library
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Topic IndexLibrary Index
Click a letter to see a list of conditions beginning with that letter.
Click 'Topic Index' to return to the index for the current topic.
Click 'Library Index' to return to the listing of all topics.

The Common Cold

A cold is an inflammation of the upper respiratory tract caused by a viral infection. The common cold is probably the most frequently occurring illness worldwide. More than 200 different viruses cause colds, and rhinoviruses and coronaviruses are the culprits most of the time. Rhinovirus infections often occur during spring, summer and early fall, and the coronavirus is more common during winter and early spring.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) estimates that Americans contract 1 billion colds each year. Adults have on average two to four colds a year, and children have six to 10 of them annually.

Easily spread

A cold virus can be spread by touching the wet discharge from the nose or mouth on the skin or on an object and then touching the eyes or nose, the NIAID says. It also can be spread when a person sneezes or coughs, which sends particles into the air that are then inhaled by another person.

Severe colds are spread more easily than mild ones because a greater amount of virus is passed into the air by coughing and sneezing. Thus, to hinder the spread of cold viruses, you should smother coughs, sneezes and "nose-blows" with clean handkerchiefs or facial tissues. You should also wash viruses off your hands with soap and water and disinfect your surroundings.

If soap and water are not available, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer can be used to clean your hands. When using these products:

  • Apply the gel to the palm of one hand

  • Rub your hands together

  • Rub the product over all surfaces of your hands and fingers until they are dry

Damp, cold or drafty weather does not increase the risk of getting a cold. According to most cold researchers, cold temperatures or bad weather simply brings people together indoors, which leads to more person-to-person contact.

Cold treatment

Doctors often quip that a cold lasts seven days without treatment, and one week with treatment. Most nonprescription medications, including antihistamines, decongestants, cough medicines and analgesics, provide only temporary relief of symptoms. These medications can make you feel more comfortable while your body's immune system gears up to fight off the infection. To get rid of the cold, your immune system must make enough antibodies to destroy the viruses, a process that takes three to four days.

Antibiotics, which fight bacteria, don't work on a cold, because colds are caused by viruses. Even the old standby "inhaling steam" has little or no beneficial effect on cold symptoms. Vitamin C does not prevent colds, according to most researchers, but may slightly reduce the severity and duration of symptoms. Resting, drinking plenty of hot fluids and seeking comfort from over-the-counter cold remedies are still all that can be done to treat most colds.

Keeping your immune system in good shape

Your chances of getting sick after being exposed to a cold virus depend on many factors that affect the immune system. Cigarette smoking, mental stress, poor nutrition and lack of sleep have all been associated with impaired immune function and increased the risk for infection.

You can keep your immune system working at its best by eating a well-balanced diet, keeping life stresses to a minimum and getting enough sleep. Immune function is suppressed when you diet, so any weight loss should be gradual to maintain good immunity.

Online Medical Reviewer: Daphne Pierce-Smith, RN, MSN, FNP, CCRC
Online Medical Reviewer: Farrell, Lois MS, PT/ATC
Online Medical Reviewer: Godsey, Cynthia M.S., M.S.N., APRN
Online Medical Reviewer: Lambert, J.G. M.D.
Online Medical Reviewer: Lee Jenkins
Online Medical Reviewer: Zachazewski, James DPT, SCS, ATC
Date Last Reviewed: 10/12/2009
© 2000-2015 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
Powered by StayWell
About Us