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Anatomy of a Cold

The common cold spreads like wildfire and causes days of malaise. This highly contagious virus is attributed to more than 200 different types of viruses—with a third of colds linked to the rhinovirus. While there’s no silver bullet for the common cold, knowledge and patience could save you time and money this cold season.

Demystifying the common cold

A cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract. According to Lucy Folino, D.O., primary care physician with Meritus Urgent Care, adults can expect two to three colds a year and children can contract five to seven colds. The cold is spread through droplets in the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The virus remains on surfaces for 48 hours and is easily transmitted by hand-to-hand contact and when you touch your eyes, mouth and nose.

Colds occur more frequently during the fall, winter and spring and are especially common when you spend more time indoors and in close proximity with other people.

Symptoms of the common cold include:

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Congestion
  • Slight body aches or a mild headache
  • Sneezing
  • Low-grade fever
  • Feeling unwell and tired

Symptoms develop two to three days after the virus is contracted and the illness can last anywhere from seven to ten days. “Our bodies are capable of fighting this infection, but it takes time,” says Dr. Folino. Patience is key.

Misconceptions

The elusive cold has many misconceptions, but the desire to cure it with antibiotics is the biggest mistaken belief. “The cold is a viral infection and antibiotics treat bacterial infections, not viruses,” says Dr. Folino. Taking antibiotics unnecessarily can disrupt your gut flora which aids in digestion and misusing antibiotics increases the risk that bacteria will develop drug resistance.

Another misconception is the belief that the yellow or greenish discharge from your nose is a sign of a bacterial infection. “This is only an indicator of the cold running its course,” says Dr. Folino. It’s also not unusual for a cough to persist weeks after other cold symptoms have passed. Dr. Folino suggests using honey or maple syrup to calm a cough.

Treatment

“The best way to treat a cold is to rest and drink plenty of fluids,” says Dr. Folino. To address body aches and fever, Dr. Folino recommends taking ibuprofen every six hours and acetaminophen in between doses, but make sure to follow label directions. Chicken soup and other warm liquids help loosen congestion as does a cool-mist humidifier.

When to see a health care provider

  • Symptoms lasting longer than 10 days
  • Sore throat only or swollen glands (may be a sign of strep throat)
  • Fever greater than 102 F
  • Facial pain and a high fever

People with weakened immune systems are more prone to catching colds and should see a health care provider soon after symptoms develop. But for most healthy children and adults, there is little need to see a health care provider for the common cold.

While recovering from a cold takes time, the good news is that you won’t catch the same cold virus twice. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of different cold viruses lurking about so wash your hands frequently, avoid close contact with anyone who has a cold—and always cover your coughs and sneezes!

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