Upper respiratory infection - viral

Alternative names
Common Cold; Cold

Definition

The common cold generally involves a runny nose, nasal congestion, and sneezing. You may also have a sore throat, cough, headache, or other symptoms. Over 200 viruses can cause a cold.

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

We call it the “common cold” for good reason. There are over one billion colds in the United States each year. You and your children will probably have more colds than any other type of illness. Children average 3 to 8 colds per year. They continue getting them throughout childhood. Parents often get them from the kids. It’s the most common reason that children miss school and parents miss work.

Children usually get colds from other children. When a new strain is introduced into a school or day care, it quickly travels through the class.

Colds can occur year-round, but they occur mostly in the winter (even in areas with mild winters). In areas where there is no winter, colds are most common during the rainy season.

When someone has a cold, their runny nose is teeming with cold viruses. Sneezing, nose-blowing, and nose-wiping spread the virus. You can catch a cold by inhaling the virus if you are sitting close to someone who sneezes, or by touching your nose, eyes, or mouth after you have touched something contaminated by the virus.

People are most contagious for the first 2 to 3 days of a cold, and usually not contagious at all by day 7 to 10.

Symptoms

The three most frequent symptoms of a cold are:

     
  • runny nose  
  • nasal congestion  
  • sneezing

Adults and older children with colds generally have minimal or no fever. Young children, however, often run a fever around 100-102°F.

Once you have “caught” a cold, the symptoms usually begin in 2 or 3 days, though it may take a week. Typically, an irritated nose or scratchy throat is the first sign, followed within hours by sneezing and a watery nasal discharge.

Within one to three days, the nasal secretions usually become thicker and perhaps yellow or green. This is a normal part of the common cold and not a reason for antibiotics.

Depending on which virus is the culprit, the virus might also produce

     
  • sore throat  
  • cough  
  • muscle aches  
  • headache  
  • postnasal drip  
  • decreased appetitie

Still, if it is indeed a cold, the most prominent symptoms will be in the nose.

For children with asthma, colds are the most common trigger of asthma symptoms.

Colds are a common precursor of ear infections. However, children’s eardrums are usually congested during a cold, and it’s possible to have fluid buildup without a true bacterial infection.

The entire cold is usually over all by itself in about 7 days, with perhaps a few lingering symptoms (such as cough) for another week. If it lasts longer, consider another problem, such as a sinus infection or allergies.

Treatment

Try over-the-counter cold remedies to relieve your symptoms. These won’t actually shorten the length of a cold, but can help you feel better. Meanwhile, get rest. Drink plenty of fluids. And don’t force a child with a cold to eat.

Antibiotics should NOT be used to treat a common cold. They will NOT help and may make the situation worse! Thick yellow or green nasal discharge is not a reason for antibiotics, unless it lasts for 10 to 14 days without improving. (In this case, it may be sinusitis.)

New anti-viral drugs could make runny noses completely clear up a day sooner than usual (and begin to ease the symptoms within a day). It’s unclear whether the benefits of these drugs outweigh the risks.

Chicken soup has been used for treating common colds at least since the 12th century. It may really help. The heat, fluid, and salt may help you fight the infection.

Expectations (prognosis)
The symptoms usually go away in 7 to 10 days.

Complications

     
  • bronchitis  
  • pneumonia  
  • ear infection  
  • sinusitis  
  • aggravation of asthma

Calling your health care provider
Try home care measures first. Call your health care provider if:

     
  • The symptoms worsen or do not improve after 7 to 10 days  
  • Breathing difficulty develops  
  • Specific symptoms deserve a call (for example, see the article on fever)

Prevention

It might seem overwhelming to try to prevent colds, but you can do it. Children average 3 to 8 colds per year. It is certainly better to get 3 than 8!

Here are 5 proven ways to reduce exposure to germs:

     
  • Switch day care: Using a day care of 6 or fewer children dramatically reduces germ contact.  
  • Wash hands: Children and adults should wash hands at key moments - after nose-wiping, after diapering or toileting, before eating, and before food preparation.  
  • Use instant hand sanitizers: Talk about convenient! A little dab will kill 99.99% of germs without any water or towels. It uses alcohol to destroy germs. It is an antiseptic, not an antibiotic, so resistance can’t develop. And it’s fun. Many kids think it’s a treat to use it!  
  • Disinfect: Clean commonly touched surfaces (sink handles, sleeping mats) with an EPA-approved disinfectant.  
  • Use paper towels… instead of shared cloth towels.

Here are seven ways to support the immune system:

     
  • Avoid unnecessary antibiotics: The more people use antibiotics, the more likely they are to get sick with longer, more stubborn infections caused by more resistant organisms in the future.  
  • Breastfeed: Breast milk is known to protect against respiratory tract infections, even years after breastfeeding is done. Kids who don’t breastfeed average 5 times more ear infections.  
  • Avoid second-hand smoke: Keep as far away from it as possible! It is responsible for many health problems, including millions of colds.  
  • Get enough sleep: Late bedtimes and poor sleep leave people vulnerable.  
  • Drink water: Your body needs fluids for the immune system to function properly.  
  • Eat yogurt: The beneficial bacteria in some active yogurt cultures help prevent colds.  
  • Take zinc: Children and adults who are zinc-deficient get more infections and stay sick longer.

 

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 4, 2012
by Janet G. Derge, M.D.

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