Most everyone has suffered with a cold, which is a respiratory tract infection caused by a virus. It is reported that the average adult will have two-three colds a year. Colds are the leading cause of missed school and work and are more common in the winter. Research indicates that the immune response is not as effective in the nasal passages and respiratory tract when it is cold.
A number of viruses can cause colds. The family of rhinoviruses is the most common. These viruses are generally spread through contact. The virus replicates in the respiratory tract and is spread though sneezing, coughing, hand contact and nasal discharge. It is reported the virus can survive on surfaces like countertops and doorknobs. When the virus comes in contact with respiratory tissue it can start an infection.
The symptoms of a cold initially are scratchy sore throat and runny nose that progresses to sneezing, congestion and cough. Headache, body aches, and fever of 100 to 101 degrees are not uncommon.
Once a cold develops, the symptoms can be treated for comfort but there is still is no cure to the common cold. As I often tell people, the symptoms will generally resolve in about 7 days without treatment or about a week with treatment. Fever and pain can be treated with Tylenol or ibuprofen. Sore throat symptoms can be treated with salt water gargles, sore throat lozenges, and sore throat sprays. Congestion can be treated with saline nose drops, decongestants, and neti pot.
Cough can be treated with cough drops, vaporizer, expectorants (like Robitussin and Mucinex), and cough suppressants (like dextromethorphan). Also rest and plenty of fluids help with recovery. Antibiotics do not help a cold and can cause drug resistance, yeast infections, diarrhea and allergic reactions.
Young children are generally treated differently than adults. Cough suppressants, decongestants and antihistamines are generally not effective for children less than 4 years old and can cause unwanted side effects. Babies less than 3 months old should be seen and evaluated if they have a temperature greater than 100.4. Aspirin should be avoided in young children due to the risk of Reye’s syndrome. I prefer only Tylenol for children less than 6 months, but Tylenol or ibuprofen can be used in children older than 6 months.
The best way to prevent a cold is to avoid contact with the virus. Sometimes that is easier said than done. People who have a cold should try to cover a cough or sneeze into a tissue or do it into their elbow. Also, it is very important to wash hands frequently to remove the virus from the hands. Shaking hands with someone who has a cold is an easy way to have contact with the cold virus. People who are infected and work with other people should consider staying home. Disinfecting work spaces that are shared can prevent contact with viruses. No vaccination prevents the common cold.
Most colds do not require an appointment. However, colds can be associated with complications that can lead to secondary bacterial infections. Secondary infections include pneumonia, ear infections and sinus infections. Signs that there may be a complication are persistent fever, ear pain, face pain, or persistent cough with shortness of breath or chest pain. Patients with immune diseases, taking medications that suppress the immune system, COPD, or asthma are more prone to complications.
This is the cold season so take precautions to stay healthy my friends.
By: P. Michael Shattuck, M.D. – Community Health Network Family Physician