Colds and Flu

    Definition

    The common cold generally involves a runny nose, nasal congestion, and sneezing. You may also have a sore throat, cough, headache, or other symptoms. Over 200 viruses can cause a cold.

    Alternative Names

    Upper respiratory infection – viral; Cold

    Causes

    The Viruses

    One reason why there is no cure for the common cold is that more than 200 different viruses can cause cold symptoms. Some, such as rhinoviruses, seldom produce serious illnesses. Others, such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), produce mild infections in adults but can lead to severe lower respiratory tract infections in young children. (The lower respiratory tract includes the lungs.)

    Rhinoviruses (from the Greek rhin, meaning “nose”) cause an estimated 30 to 50 percent of all colds. Scientists have identified more than 100 distinct rhinovirus types. For example, rhinovirus C was discovered only in 2007 and is found worldwide. Rhinoviruses grow best at temperatures of about 91ºF, the temperature inside the human nose.

    Scientists think coronaviruses cause about 10 to 15 percent of all adult colds. They bring on colds primarily in the winter and early spring. Although many coronaviruses infect animals, only five infect humans, causing respiratory tract illness. How important coronaviruses are as a cause of colds is hard to assess because, unlike rhinoviruses, they are difficult to grow in a laboratory.

    Adult cold symptoms also are caused by viruses that are responsible for other, more severe illnesses. These viruses are: adenoviruses, coxsackieviruses, echoviruses, orthomyxoviruses (including influenza A and B viruses, which cause flu), paramyxoviruses (including several parainfluenza viruses), RSV, and enteroviruses.

    Researchers still haven’t identified the causes of 20 to 30 percent of adult colds, presumed to be viral. Because current advances in technology are leading to new tools to diagnose diseases, however, the next decade undoubtedly will bring significantly greater understanding of the causes of the common cold.

    The Cold Season

    In the United States, most colds occur during the fall and winter. This may relate to the opening of schools and the start of cold weather, which prompt people to spend more time indoors and increase the chances that viruses will spread from person to person.
    Seasonal changes in relative humidity also may affect the occurrence of colds. The most common cold-causing viruses survive better when humidity is low—the colder months of the year. Cold weather also may make the inside lining of your nose drier and more vulnerable to viral infection.

    Other Factors

    Although a connection exists between the number of cases of the common cold and the fall and winter seasons, there is no experimental evidence that exposure to cold temperatures increases the chances that you will get a cold. There is also no evidence that your chances of getting a cold are related to enlarged tonsils or adenoids.

    On the other hand, several research studies show that people who exercise regularly have a significantly reduced number of respiratory tract infections, such as the common cold, compared with those who don’t exercise. Research also suggests that allergic diseases that affect the nose or throat and psychological stress may increase your chances of getting infected by cold viruses.

    Symptoms

    Symptoms of the common cold usually begin 2 to 3 days after infection and often include:

    •    Sore throat
    •    Mucus buildup in your nose
    •    Difficulty breathing through your nose
    •    Swelling of your sinuses
    •    Sneezing
    •    Cough
    •    Headache
    •    Tiredness

    Although fever is uncommon in adults, it is often found in children with colds and can climb to102ºF in infants and young children.
    Cold symptoms can last from 2 to 14 days, but if you are like most people, you’ll probably recover in a week to 10 days. If your symptoms return often or last much longer than 2 weeks, you might have an allergy rather than a cold.

    High fever, significantly swollen glands, severe sinus pain, and a cough that produces mucus may be signs that you have a complication or more serious illness. If you have any of these signs, you should contact your healthcare provider.

    Treatments

    There is no cure for the common cold, but you can get relief from your cold symptoms by:
    •    Resting in bed
    •    Drinking plenty of fluids
    •    Gargling with warm salt water or using ice chips, throat sprays, or lozenges for a scratchy or sore throat
    •    Using a decongestant or saline nasal spray to help relieve nasal symptoms
    •    Using petroleum jelly to soothe a raw nose
    •    Taking aspirin or acetaminophen—Tylenol, for example—for headache or fever

    Colds occasionally can lead to bacterial infections of your middle ear or sinuses, requiring treatment with antibiotics. However, you should not use antibiotics to treat a cold.

    A word of caution: Several studies have linked aspirin use to the development of Reye’s syndrome in children recovering from flu or chickenpox. Reye’s syndrome is a rare but serious illness that usually occurs in children between the ages of 3 and 12 years. It can affect all organs of the body but most often the brain and liver. While most children who survive an episode of Reye’s syndrome do not suffer any lasting affects, the illness can lead to permanent brain damage or death. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children and teenagers not be given aspirin or medicine containing aspirin when they have any viral illness such as the common cold. Babies 6 months of age or younger should be given only acetaminophen, such as Tylenol, for pain relief.

    Over-the-Counter Cold Medicines

    Nonprescription cold remedies, including decongestants and cough suppressants, may relieve some of your cold symptoms but will not prevent or even shorten the length of your cold. Moreover, because most of these medicines have some side effects, such as drowsiness, dizziness, insomnia, or upset stomach, you should take them with care.

    Use In Children

    Health experts have questioned the safety of nonprescription cold medicines in children and whether the benefits justify any possible risks from giving these medicines to children, especially those under 2 years old. In 2008, a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) panel recommended that nonprescription cold medicines not be given to children under 4 years old, because cold medicines don’t appear to be effective for these children and may not be safe, especially for those under the age of 2.

    Because many cold medicines contain multiple drugs, FDA also recommends being very careful in giving a child more than one cold medicine at a time, so as not to cause harm from too high a dose of cold medicines.

    Over-the-Counter Antihistamines

    Nonprescription antihistamines may give you some relief from symptoms such as runny nose and watery eyes, which are symptoms commonly associated with colds.

    Antibiotics

    Never take antibiotics to treat a cold, because colds are caused by viruses and antibiotics do not kill viruses. You should use these prescription medicines only if you have a rare bacterial complication, such as sinusitis or ear infection. In addition, you should not use antibiotics “just in case” because they will not prevent bacterial infections.

    Alternative Medicines

    •    Echinacea
    •    Vitamin C
    •    Honey
    •    Zinc

    Possible Complications

    Possible Complications:

    •    Bronchitis
    •    Ear infection
    •    Pneumonia
    •    Sinusitis
    •    Worsening of asthma

    When to Contact a Medical Professional

    Try home care measures first. Call your health care provider if:

    •    Breathing difficulty develops
    •    Symptoms worsen or do not improve after 7 to 10 days

    Preventions

    There are several ways you can keep yourself from getting a cold or passing one on to others:

    •    Because cold viruses on your hands can easily enter through your eyes and nose, wash your hands often and keep your hands away from those areas of your body.
    •    If possible, avoid being close to people who have colds.
    •    If you have a cold, avoid being close to people.
    •    When you sneeze or cough, cover your nose or mouth and sneeze or cough into your elbow rather than your hand.

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