Common cold (sometimes referred as flu) is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract. The upper respiratory tract includes nose, throat, airways and the lungs. There are many types of viruses that can cause the common cold. Being a viral infection, antibiotics do not work on common cold hence they are fought by body’s immune system and therefore, are self-limiting.
Common cold is a very common infection and people of all ages can catch it easily although children younger than six years old are more sensitive to catch it. The course of the infection is very mild and usually it resolves by itself within a week or 10 days however smokers and people with weaker immune system are at higher risk of prolonged symptoms and longer course of the infection.
Symptoms of Common cold and Flu are very similar, however they are caused by different viruses. Common cold develops gradually whereas Flu symptoms generally develop rapidly. Common cold gets better itself within a few days. However, Flu can be severe, especially in children, elderly and pregnant women.
The main signs and symptoms of the common cold include:
- Sore hurting throat
- Runny or blocked nose
- Sneezes and coughs
- Low grade fever (Fever of up to 102°F)
Apart from that other minor symptoms are:
- Feeling tired
- Body ache
- Watery and red eye
The above symptoms are usually mild and resolve completely by itself within a week or 10 days.
If any of the symptoms prolong or get worse, the cause may be different and the person should immediately consult the doctor if any of the following occur:
- High grade fever (fever of above 102°F)
- Symptoms lasting for more than 2 weeks or getting worse
- Trouble breathing or wheezing in the chest
- Change in mental state, confusion, disorientation
- Persistent vomitting
- Swollen glands in the neck
- Coughing up blood stained sputum
There are many different types of virus that can cause common cold but most commonly caused by Rhinovirus. Other types of viruses can also cause common cold such as Respiratory Syncytial virus, Human Parainfluenza viruses, and Human Metapneumovirus.
The viruses can spread through the droplets or salivary secretions of the infected person to the uninfected person when in close contact. When the infected person sneezes or coughs, small droplets of secretions spread containing the virus. These small droplets are hard to see in air. The virus can also be transmitted through items used by infected person like towels, utensil or toys.
The cold virus enters the body of the uninfected person through nose, mouth or eyes.
The main risk factors that increase the chances of catching a common cold are:
- Children under 6 Years of Age: Because their immune system is under developing stage, they are at the greatest risk of catching a common cold
- Smoking: Smokers are more likely to catch a common cold, which might be more severe
- Time of the year: Many people usually catch cold during the season of autumn and winter but this is not specific
- Weakened immune system: People suffering from a disease that has weakened their immune system are more likely to catch a severe cold
- Exposure: There are more chances of catching cold in a closed place where the exposure is higher like schools, hospitals and airplanes
Diagnosis of common cold is mainly done on the signs and symptoms of the disease.
To rule out the flu virus as a cause, doctor may order nasal swab test for flu. If the doctor suspects bacterial infection, he may order some blood tests or chest X-Ray to exclude other causes.
Some routine blood tests may be ordered but in most cases of common cold they are of minimum help to manage and treat the cold.
There are no specific treatment options against the virus and the only measures taken are to relieve the symptoms while the patient’s immune system fights the virus.
Antibiotics do not help in common cold as they are ineffective against viruses.
Remedies for relieving signs and symptoms include:
- Patient can use Pain and fever medications like Acetaminophen (Panadol)
- Over the counter allergy medications such as antihistamines or decongestant nasal spray are effective for blocked nose. These shouldn’t be used in children less than six years. It is always better to check with the qualified doctor before starting the medication.
- Over the counter cough syrups to relieve cough symptoms. It should be avoided in children below four years as it is not recommended by the Food and drug administration, USA (FDA)
- Use of vitamin C and Zinc tablets can also be effective
Apart from the medications, common home remedies are also helpful such as:
- Drinking lots of water and fluids
- Chicken soup or broth help in strengthening the immune system and recover faster
- Having gargles with warm salt water few times a day
- Stop or avoid smoking as smoke may worsen the cold symptoms
- Plenty of bed rest is also effective in helping body fight the infection
Common cold usually gets better itself without any further problems but sometimes spread to chest, ear and sinuses causing
- Sinusitis: Sinuses are small air spaced cavities in the cheek and forehead bones. More commonly in adults, the virus may spread to these sinuses and cause its inflammation. Symptoms include pain and tenderness in the head, nose and forehead, blocked or runny nose, and high temperature
- Middle Ear Infection: Usually affects the child under the age of five years with cold. Symptoms may include severe ear ache, high temperature, some loss of hearing, vomiting and lack of energy
- Chest Infection: As the common cold weakens the immune system, rarely, a chest infection such as pneumonia or bronchitis may occur. Symptoms may include persistent cough, bringing up phlegm (mucus) in the cough and shortness of breath
There is no vaccine to prevent common cold but there are few practices that can help greatly to reduce the risk of catching common cold. That includes:
- Hand washing frequently with soap
- Coughing and sneezing inside the elbow rather than into your palms
- Keep common surfaces clean such as table and counter tops, child’s toy, door handles and bathroom
- Eating healthy diet (eat fruits and vegetables available in the season), having regular exercise and good sleep also help boost the immune system and play a role in preventing cold and other infections