The common cold is a viral infectious disease that infects the upper respiratory system. It is also known as acute viral rhinopharyngitis and acute coryza. It is the most common infectious disease in humans and is mainly caused by coronaviruses or rhinoviruses.
Because there are more than 200 viruses that cause the common cold, the human body can never build up resistance to all of them. This is why colds are so common and often return. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), adults get 2-3 colds per year and children may have up to 12 per year.
The common cold is contagious; it can be spread by air droplets from coughs and sneezes and by touching infected surfaces. It is contagious from 1–2 days before symptoms begin until the symptoms have stopped.
Fast facts on colds
Here are some key points about colds. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
- Common cold symptoms include dry or sore throat, blocked or runny nose, and sneezing.
- Around a quarter of people do not experience symptoms when infected with a cold.
- Up to half of common colds are caused by a group of viruses referred to as rhinoviruses.
- Complications of the common cold include acute bronchitis and pneumonia.
- People with lung conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are more vulnerable to colds than other people.
The most common symptoms of a cold are:
- dry throat
- sore throat
- mild fever
- hoarse voice
- blocked nose
- mild headache
The common cold can be caused by more than 200 different viruses. Around 50 percent of colds are caused by rhinoviruses, other cold-causing viruses include:
- human parainfluenza virus
- Human metapneumovirus
- coronaviruses adenovirus
- human respiratory suncytial virus
When a virus manages to overpower the body's immune system, infection occurs. The first line of defense is mucus, which is produced in the nose and throat by the mucus glands. This mucus traps anything inhaled, such as dust, viruses, and bacteria. Mucus is a slippery fluid that the membranes of the nose, mouth, throat, and vagina produce.
However, there are some precautions that can help avoid catching the common cold. These include:
- Avoid close contact with someone infected with a cold.
- Eat plenty of vitamin-rich fruit and vegetables to help keep the immune system strong.
- When sneezing or coughing, make sure it is done into a tissue. Discard the tissue carefully and wash your hands.
- If you sneeze into your hands, make sure you wash them with soap and water immediately.
- If you have no tissues or a handkerchief, cough into the inside (crook) of your elbow rather than your hands.
- Wash your hands regularly; cold viruses can be transmitted from one person to another by touch. In fact, more germs are passed by shaking hands than by kissing.
- Keep surfaces in your home clean — especially in the kitchen or bathroom.
- Avoid touching your face, especially your nose and mouth.
It is important to realize that both antibiotics and antiviral medications are ineffective against most viruses that cause the common cold. A cold normally lasts up to 10 days; however, some symptoms can stay as long as 3 weeks.
Although there is no real way of treating or curing a common cold, the following measures may help ease the symptoms:
- Drink plenty of fluids and keep well hydrated, being dehydrated when infected with a cold can make symptoms worse.
- Get plenty of bed rest; it is important to get as much sleep/rest as possible while the immune system is fighting off the virus.
- Take aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen to relieve headache or fever. Do not give aspirin to children under 16.
- Some people find that inhaling steam helps ease the symptoms of nasal congestion.
(Image: Representation only)
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