The common cold is a viral infection affecting the nose and throat, which make up the upper respiratory tract. The infection causes an inflammation of the moist membranes lining the tract.
Millions of people catch the common cold every year, more often during the cold seasons. It is a relatively harmless, but annoying infection. Healthy adults tend to be affected by the condition twice or thrice a year. Children and infants are affected frequently.
People with chronic illness, and those with a weakened immune system are also more susceptible than others.
The symptoms start appearing a couple of days after one is exposed to the virus. They usually include:
- A runny nose and sore throat. The nasal discharge is initially watery and becomes thick and yellowish towards the end
- Headache and body ache.
- Mild fever
A common cold can make existing asthma worse, and lead to infections of the sinuses and ears. Most people recover fully in about a week, whereas the symptoms of those who smoke may last longer.
Cough is often the last symptom to subside, taking up to three weeks in most adults. Those who experience high, or recurring fever, and shortness of breath should seek medical attention.
Children who develop bluish lips, pain in the ear, or persistent coughing require medical care.
In rare cases, a common cold can also lead to bacterial infections of the lungs.
Among the many viruses that can cause a common cold, rhinoviruses (‘rhino’ is Greek for nose) are the predominant ones.
- The virus enters the body through the nose, mouth, or eyes. It spreads easily when you inhale droplets that are spread by the cough and sneeze of an infected person. Crowded indoor settings such as an aeroplane, offices or schools provide ideal conditions for such transmissions.
- It also spreads by direct contact or by touching contaminated surfaces and wiping the nose or mouth with unwashed hands.
- It can even spread by sharing contaminated objects like phones, towels, or toys in the case of children.
Unless the symptoms are severe or persist for a long time, there is no need to visit a doctor for a common cold. A chest X-ray, throat swabs or other lab tests may be advised if a bacterial infection is suspected.
There is no definitive cure for a common cold. Antibiotics are not effective against viral infections. But in some cases your doctor might prescribe antibiotics as a prophylactic to prevent bacterial infections as the body’s immunity is compromised when fighting the cold-causing virus.
To treat the common cold, the following are advised:
- Rest and keep sipping warm fluids
- Warm saltwater gargles can create an unfavourable condition for the virus to multiply
- Saline nasal sprays or drops can help to loosen the mucus
For infants and children, any kind of medication is best avoided. Adults can use medication to seek symptomatic relief. This can be done with:
- Regular painkillers
- Decongestant nasal sprays
- Cough syrups for both dry and wet cough
There is no vaccine against the common cold, partly because of the numerous types of viruses which are responsible for the infection. However, your doctor may suggest taking the flu vaccine during the peak infectious seasons.
The only steps that can be taken to prevent the spread of infection are to create awareness.
- Not sending children to school when they are showing symptoms
- Washing hands with soap and water regularly
- Using hand sanitisers after touching public doors, switches, bathroom taps, and so forth
- Moving away from people and covering the mouth before sneezing or coughing
- Wearing face masks in crowded settings
- Keeping a safe distance from infected persons
- Not sharing cups, spoons and other utensils if someone at home has a common cold