Table of Contents
Colds – common illnesses resulting from infection with one of more than 200 variations of rhinovirus, a family of highly contagious viruses that infiltrate the nasal mucosa (mucous membranes that line the inside of the nose and the sinuses).
Because so many variations of rhinovirus can cause colds, most people get several colds a year. Children may get 8 to 10 colds in a year; adults may get half as many. Colds are the most common viral infections.
Symptoms of Colds and Diagnostic Path
Symptoms of a cold include
- runny nose (rhinitis) and sinus congestion
- yellowish green nasal discharge
Some people develop sore throat (pharyngitis) and cough as a consequence of postnasal drip, and the sinus congestion often causes headache. Colds do not typically cause fever or muscle aches; these and other more extensive symptoms suggest a different viral infection such as influenza (the flu).
In children, EAR infections (otitis media) may occur as a secondary illness because the congestion clogs the eustachian tubes, causing fluid to accumulate in the middle ear.
Colds: Treatment Options and Outlook
Colds are self-limiting, generally running their course in five to seven days. Treatment is supportive, targeting relief of symptoms. Many over-thecounter (OTC) cold products contain decongestant medications, cough suppressants, analgesic medications, and sometimes antihistamine medications. Drinking plenty of fluids is important to help loosen nasal secretions, particularly when takingm decongestant medications that dry out the mucous membranes.
Chicken soup, a time-honored folk remedy, may boost the immune system’s efforts to fight the infective virus. Antibiotic medications are not effective in treating viral infections. Doctors may prescribe antiviral medications to people at risk for complications, generally those who are immunocompromised.
Antiviral medications can shorten the course of the cold. Complications that may develop include bronchitis and pneumonia, both of which can have serious health consequences for people who lack a strong immune response.
Risk Factors and Preventive Measures against Colds
Rhinoviruses are ever present. They tend to cause infection (colds) during times when people are together indoors for extended periods of time-winter. The rhinovirus particles travel through the air and attach themselves to surfaces such as doorknobs. The most effective measure for preventing colds is diligent hand washing.
Minimizing exposure to large crowds of people (such as in shopping malls, theaters, and restaurants) lowers the risk for exposure to viruses that cause colds. There is some evidence that the herbal product echinacea can prevent or lessen the severity of colds. Zinc supplements boost immune function, helping the body resist infection with rhinoviruses.
Page last reviewed: