A cold, popularly known as the common cold, is a upper respiratory infection. There are millions of cases each year in the United States, so chances are that you’ve had one before.
It’s a mild illness that usually requires only a few days of bed rest but costs adults productive hours at work and causes children to be absent from school. In this article, I’ll discuss the basics of a cold, the associated symptoms, and its causes.
I’ll explain how to diagnose and treat a cold. I’ll also talk about its potential risks and complications. Finally, I’ll explore how to prevent a cold and when to talk to a doctor.
A cold isn’t a specific virus, but rather a shorthand for the symptoms we feel when infected with one of many possible viruses. It usually refers to a viral respiratory tract infection.
The symptoms are mild, although they can be severe in children, and can affect your routines and normal activities.
Head Cold vs. Chest Cold
You may hear people refer to colds as a “head cold” or a “chest cold”. A head cold refers to an upper respiratory virus that causes symptoms such as headache and sinus congestion, whereas a chest cold usually refers to viruses that cause symptoms such as chest congestion and cough.
Both are nicknames we’ve given to a set of symptoms. A head cold and a chest cold also have many things in common. They are both contagious viral infections.
They also have similar symptoms that last less than three weeks, such as sore throat, coughing, headache, and body aches. A head cold might also be called a common cold. It affects the upper respiratory tract and causes inflammation of the membranes lining the nose and throat.
This creates symptoms in your head region such as runny nose, watery eyes, and sneezing. A chest cold is also known as acute viral bronchitis and is a lower respiratory tract infection. It often occurs when an upper respiratory infection like the common cold spreads to the lungs.
With a chest cold, the airways are inflamedand produce mucus. The mucus makes your airways narrow and makes breathing difficult. This causes chest congestion and coughing.
Symptoms of a Cold
The symptoms of a head cold are usually mild and appear 2 or 3 days after infection.
- Sore throat
- Watery eyes
- Stuffy nose
- Body aches
These symptoms, in whatever combination they appear, usually last between 7-10 days and then clear up. If the symptoms are severe and persist for more than 10 days, the illness may have been exacerbated by certain underlying health conditions like asthma.
Causes of Colds
Respiratory viruses usually cause colds.
There are over 200 different viruses that can be possible causes. Rhinoviruses are the most common cause of colds. They account for 10-50% of all colds. The development of asthma and the worsening of chronic pulmonary disease have also been linked with rhinoviruses. Other viruses commonly responsible for colds include respiratory syncytial virus, human parainfluenza viruses, adenovirus, common human coronaviruses, and human metapneumovirus.
Although most people get colds during winter and spring, they are not caused by cold weather. This pattern is observed because the cold weakens the defense mechanism of the nasal lining and people spend more time together indoors, increasing the chances of spreading the viruses.
You can get a cold at any time of the year. The viruses are contagious and are passed from an infected person to another individual through close personal contact and droplets of saliva or mucus released into the air. You can get the infection by directly contacting infected surfaces like doorknobs, phones, and toys.
Diagnosing a Cold
You usually do not need your healthcare provider to diagnose a cold. The symptoms are the tell-tale signs of an infection, and you can use them for self-diagnosis.
But since a cold shares symptoms with some other respiratory infections like the flu, you may decide to visit your doctor. Based on your symptoms, your doctor may call for some tests to rule out other infections.
Treating a Cold
A cold is a self-limited viral infection which means it will typically clear on its own. There is no cure, but you can use certain treatments to help provide relief from symptoms.
OTC Medications and Treatments
Over-the-counter (OTC) medications are medications you can purchase without a prescription.
- Painkillers: Medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil) can help to relieve muscle aches, headaches, and lower fever. Make sure to use the proper dosage as indicated in the patient information leaflet and do not use them for an extended period. Do not give children and teenagers acetylsalicylic acid (Aspirin) to relieve cold symptoms because it can cause a dangerous but rare condition called Reye’s syndrome.
- Cough suppressants: Cold and cough medicines help to ease coughing. Do not give cough suppressants to children under six years because of possible side effects.
- Throat lozenge and sprays: Throat lozenges help soothe the throat while throat sprays work by numbing the throat area, which relieves the sore throat pain. A spoonful of honey can be just as helpful as lozenges and sprays.
- Antihistamines: Antihistamines such as loratadine (Claritin) and diphenhydramine (Benadryl) help to relieve symptoms similar to those of an allergic reaction such as runny nose, sneezing, and watery eyes.
- Vitamin C, D, and Zinc: These supplements help general body wellness and strengthen your immune system.
Before using any OTC medication or treatment, confirm with your doctor or healthcare provider that any other medications you’re on are safe to combine with OTC treatments. Also, check the ingredients of each drug to make sure you’re not taking too much of one substance as some cold medicines combine multiple OTC medications inside.
Since viruses and not bacteria usually cause colds, antibiotics are not typically recommended. Unnecessary use of antibiotics will only make it more difficult to treat a bacterial infection in the future due to antibacterial resistance.
Home remedies are not scientifically proven methods but are popular and mostly safe, so they are worth trying.
Some of them include:
- Drink plenty of water: With a cold, you lose water through coughing and having a runny nose. You can replace the lost fluid by drinking lots of water, juices, and even soups to ensure you’re hydrated.
- Get enough rest: Sleeping and resting give your body time to recover, which is beneficial for your immune system.
- Humidifier: A humidifier will help to keep the air moist, which helps to prevent the further irritation that dry air can cause to your mucous membranes.
- Gargle with warm salt water: To make a saltwater gargle, add ¼ or ½ teaspoon of salt to an 8-ounce glass of water. Use warm water for a more soothing effect on your throat than cold water. Do not give salt water gargles to children younger than six years old as they cannot gargle properly.
- Warm compresses: A warm compress placed on your sinus area can help you feel more comfortable. You can make a warm compress by dipping a towel in a bowl of hot water and then wringing out the excess water leaving the towel damp.
These home remedies are unlikely to cure your cold, but theyprovide relief from symptoms while you wait for the infection to clear on its own with time.
Risks and Complications from a Cold
With most people, a cold clear the virus within 7-10 days. But in some cases, the infection persists and leads to more complicated illnesses.
Potential complications include:
- Asthma: A cold can trigger asthma, causing an exacerbation or attack. In this case, symptoms may last longer and you may also experience wheezing and chest tightness.
- Acute ear infection: The viruses causing the head cold can move from your mouth and nose to your ear. It then causes a build-up of fluids where bacteria can grow, causing an infection. Often times mild ear discomfort is normal during a cold due to referred pain from the sinus congestion, but if ear pain is severe or lasts on one side after the congestion and other cold symptoms improve, make sure to speak to your doctor about a possible bacterial ear infection.
- Sinusitis: Sinusitis is one of the most common complications of a cold. One evident symptom is experiencing pain and pressure in your sinuses. Acute sinusitis usually resolves on its own in less than two weeks. If your sinus pain is severe or lasts more than 10 days without improvement, be sure to speak to your doctor.
- Secondary bacterial infection: This is common among individuals with a weakened immune system. Following a cold, they can develop a secondary bacterial infection like pneumonia. . If your symptoms seem to worsen, you may have a secondary bacterial infection that needs to be treated by a doctor.
Preventing a Cold
There is no vaccine available to prevent colds, so you need to use the following prevention practices:
- Wash your hands often: Wash your hands properly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. You can teach children to sing the birthday song so that they spend the recommended length of time. If washing your hands regularly is not feasible, use an alcohol-based sanitizer regularly.
- Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands: Your hand will likely contact contaminated surfaces, so avoid putting dirty hands into your nose, eye, or mouth as they can serve as an entrance for the virus.
- Stay away from sick people: Colds are contagious and usually spread through droplets from infected persons in the air and on surfaces. The closer you are to an infected person, the more likely you are to be infected.
- Disinfect shared spaces: This is only necessary if you share space with an infected person or have a visitor who was infected. Focus on high-touch areas like handles, countertops, tables, and doorknobs. You can clean other areas when they are visibly dirty or as often as you deem fit.
- Eat and sleep well: Eating nutritious food like fruits and vegetables and getting up to 8 hours of sleep keeps your body in good shape to fight off any infection.
Take extra caution if you have a family or a friend who has a head cold. If you are infected, these same practices will help you avoid spreading it to others.
When to See a Doctor
Generally, you do not need to see a doctor or healthcare provider for a cold since it will resolve on its own in less than two weeks.
However, talk to a doctor if you experience any of the following:
- Symptoms that persist after 10 days
- Symptoms that are uncommon to a cold
- Shortness of breath or wheezing
- Severe headache, sore throat, or sinus pain
- Fever greater than 101.3 F (38.5 C) lasting more than two days
- Feeling light-headed
In such cases, you might have another infection, in which case your doctor may recommend some tests.
If infants less than three months old have a cold with a fever, take them to visit a pediatrician.
Also, if your child shows severe cold symptoms from the onset, see their pediatrician.
How K Health Can Help
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
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