Common Cold

The common cold is the name given to a contagious viral illness spread by touch or contaminated droplets in the air that infects the nose, mouth, throat and related structures of the upper respiratory tract. There are many different viruses than can cause this condition with the most common being varieties of rhinovirus, coronavirus and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Although the symptoms can be uncomfortable, most people recover from a cold without any complications within a week or two.

Symptoms include:

  • Sneezing
  • Sniffling and watery nose
  • Coughing
  • Stuffy congested sinuses and chest
  • Irritated and sore throat
  • Fever in children
  • Mild fatigue

When to see a Doctor

A doctor’s visit is unnecessary for most people suffering from a cold however you should contact your healthcare provider if you have:

For adults:

  • High grade fever for many days with a loss of appetite and shaking chills
  • Difficulty breathing and chest pain on breathing
  • Severe sinus pain with bloody yellowish green phlegm
  • Cough that extends for more than 10 days especially in a patient with underlying emphysema or asthma
  • Coughing up blood
  • Age greater than 75

For children:

  • High grade fever (any fever in a baby less than 3 months old; higher than 39 degrees Celsius in a child more than 3 months old)
  • Becomes confused or stops responding to you
  • Signs of dehydration are present such as less frequent urination or reduced in amount
  • Loss of appetite or inability to eat and drink due to the sore throat
  • Vomiting and abdominal pain
  • Presence of severe headache and neck pain
  • Uncontrolled persistent crying
  • Cough> 2weeks especially if productive
  • Red eyes with yellow discharge
  • Earache, or pulls at ears with or without discharge
  • The child does not seem to be their normal self

Children are more susceptible to the common cold and, unfortunately, also get more severe symptoms that last longer.

Possible Complications

Rarely, the common cold can lead to more serious illnesses. This is especially true in children and in patients with a weak immune system like cancer patients. Some examples of possible complications are:

  • Wheezing – the common cold can trigger an asthmatic like bronchitis attack
  • Otitis media – this is an infection in the middle ear that presents with ear pain and fever secondary to spread of the virus behind the eardrum
  • Sinusitis – infection of the sinuses
  • Pharyngitis – bacterial infection of the throat that occurs in addition to the virus once the patient’s immune system has been compromised
  • Pneumonia – infection of the lung tissue

Treatment Available

Unfortunately, there is no treatment available for the common cold except proper nutrition, adequate rest and good hygiene. A normal person’s immune system should be able to fight off the virus on its own. Non-prescription medications marketed for the common cold help to relieve the symptoms but are not a cure. Take care to follow the label directions. Also, use caution if you have a heart condition, or you take prescription medicines.

  • Painkillers (acetaminophen) may be used for the headaches, sore throat and fever.
  • Cough syrups (dextromethorphan) are available but are not recommended especially in children younger than 6 years old.
  • Nasal sprays (decongestant) help to ease breathing by reducing congestion.

Safe for children? — Any child younger than age 6 should NOT be given any cold medicines, as they are not considered safe for young children.

Over-the-counter pain medications like acetaminophen and ibuprofen are fine. However, for children, the dosage of these medications is dependent on weight, so a doctor’s advice might be beneficial. Aspirin, a common pain medication, should not be given to children because it can cause Reye’s syndrome. Reye’s syndrome is a rare but potentially fatal condition that is characterized by rashes, seizures and confusion due to the swelling of the brain and the liver.

There are also many home remedies that can help make the patient feel more comfortable. These include things like:

  • Chicken soup to help fight infection
  • Keeping a humidifier in the room to make it easier to breathe and reduce coughing
  • Gargling with salt water to relieve a sore throat
  • Taking vitamin C – this has been rumored to shorten the duration of symptoms but limited clinical evidence
  • Zinc supplements – this has been rumored to shorten the duration of symptoms but limited clinical evidence
  • Echinacea herbal remedy –  this has been rumored to shorten the duration of symptoms but limited clinical evidence

Preventing transmission of the Common Cold

The most valuable thing to do is frequent hand washing with abundant soap and water. Alcohol hand rubs are effective as well. Germs that spread via the droplets tend to linger on handles of doors and other surfaces and may do so for up to 2 hours. This is why frequent had washing is emphasized.  Avoiding physical contact with infected individuals and avoiding crowded poorly ventilated areas will also reduce the transmission.

Differentiating Between the Common Cold And the Flu

Flu is a specific type of illness caused by the influenza virus. They present with similar symptoms but patients with flu generally get them more severe. In addition to the classical symptoms of the common cold, patients with flu normally get:

  • A higher grade of fever
  • Headaches
  • More severe body aches
  • Extreme fatigue and lethargy
  • Chest discomfort

In addition, the common cold may be caught many times in the year, whereas a proper flu infection normally occurs once a year and especially during winter months.