The common cold is a common viral infection of the respiratory tract. In the following article, we’ll review the essentials of this disease.
You’ve probably had more than one cold during your life at this point. However, it’s not rare that you still have doubts about this disease. This is why, in the following article, a doctor will review the most important aspects of it. All put into simple words, so you get the most understanding of the common cold.
What is the common cold?
The common cold is a viral infectious disease that affects the upper respiratory tract. It mostly affects the mucosa of the nose, throat, sinuses, and larynx.
Although most of the time, it only causes mild symptoms, common colds are the number 1 cause of children missing school and adults missing work. In the United States alone, millions of cases are diagnosed each year. In fact, an adult can have up to 3 colds per year. Also, children can have many more cold episodes during one year.
Like any other upper respiratory infection, the common cold is contagious. You can get a cold by coming into close contact with an infected person. Besides, you can get it by having contact with contaminated surfaces and touching your nose or eyes with contaminated hands.
This latter happens because the common cold spreads through respiratory droplets. These are tiny drops that we release while talking, coughing, or sneezing. These droplets contain the virus and can infect other people if they reach them. Summed up to the fact that these droplets can contaminate surfaces and objects. This way, when a person touches them, they’ll end up with a virus in their hands.
What causes the common cold?
Like we mentioned before, the common cold is a viral infection. This means that viruses cause it. The viruses that cause upper respiratory tract infections are known as respiratory viruses.
There are at least 200 different respiratory viruses that can cause a common cold. Still, some are more common than others. The most common viruses that cause the common cold include:
- Rhinovirus: The most common for the common cold. In fact, around 40% of common cold cases are caused by rhinovirus infection.
- Coronavirus: Don’t worry, it’s not the same that causes Covid-19. There are many types of coronavirus that cause colds.
- Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV): It’s the cause of around 20% of common cold cases. Yet, this virus is also responsible for more serious respiratory illnesses, especially in toddlers.
- Other viruses: Like parainfluenza and other not yet identified viruses.
How can I get the common cold?
The most successful means of transmission of the common cold is through mucus secretions. Usually, people with the cold while touching surfaces or interacting with other people promote the spread of the virus in them. Then, unaware people, by reaching their nose or eyes, pick up the virus and introduce it inside them.
Different possible routes of infection are inhalation of small airborne particles over a short distance. Therefore. It is essential for maintaining social distance during the common cold.
Given all these mechanisms of transmission, it is usual that close relatives or coworkers acquire the cold if someone nearby has it. Nevertheless, hygiene measures could considerably reduce the risk of infection. These measures include washing your hands (but correctly), avoiding close contact with people, and cleaning nearby surfaces of your use, such as tables or doorknobs.
What are the risk factors for acquiring the common cold?
Anyone can get a common cold. If you’re reading this, you probably have had several colds by now. However, like in any other disease, there are risk factors that can increase your chance of getting one. The most common risk factors include:
- Age: For the common cold, young children are especially at risk of getting them.
- Weakened immune system: If you suffer from a condition that impairs your immune system, it can’t fight viral infections. This makes it more likely to develop common colds.
- Seasons: Everyone is more likely to get colds during the fall and the winter. People actually call this flu season because of this.
- Smoking: Cigarette smoke is an irritant for the airways. If you smoke or are exposed to cigarette smoke, you are more likely to get colds. Besides, smoking can weaken your immune system, making you more likely to develop severe symptoms or complications.
- Exposure: The common cold is spread from person to person. So, if you are exposed to environments with many people, you are more likely to get it.
Which children are at risk for the common cold?
Again, all children can develop a common cold. Nevertheless, younger children (under the age of 6) are more likely to get a common cold. This happens because of several reasons.
First, small children don’t have a mature immune system yet. Also, they haven’t created resistance to viral infections, so they’ll probably suffer from colds frequently. On the other side, young kids usually come into close contact with other young kids that might be carrying viruses. This happens especially with children that attend daycares. And finally, it’s unlikely that small children wash their hands often or cover their mouths while coughing or sneezing.
We can also take into account the risk factors that we mentioned before. Children with conditions that weaken their immune system or are exposed to cigarette smoke are more likely to get colds.
What are the stages of the common cold?
The first stage of any infectious disease is the incubation period. This is the period between the moment you get infected until the moment you start to show symptoms. For the common cold, you’ll usually show symptoms 2-3 days after getting infected.
In the next stage, you will start to show very mild symptoms. The first common cold symptoms to appear are usually sneezing runny nose and nasal congestion. This stage typically lasts from 2 to 3 days.
Then, in the next stage, you can start feeling a little worse. You can experience worsening your symptoms or even new symptoms you didn’t have before, like fever and coughing. This stage lasts between 3 to 5 days. You must get some rest and keep yourself hydrated during this period. Also, it really helps if you keep yourself at home, so you don’t spread the cold to other people.
After this latter stage, you will likely start feeling better. Your symptoms will start to disappear between 5 to 7 days after they started.
Importantly, when your symptoms disappear, you are not contagious anymore. After this, you can return to your daily activities as usual. You must make sure that your symptoms are getting better. Even if the common cold is a mild infection, the persistence of the symptoms can indicate a bad prognosis or possible outcomes.
How long is the common cold contagious?
A common cold is contagious even if you haven’t shown any symptoms. That’s right; you can spread a common cold during the incubation period.
Doctors agree that even a whole day before your first symptom, you are already contagious. Then, you are contagious for about 5 to 7 days since the symptom onset. This happens because you have the virus reproducing in your body.
Besides, the virus is present in nasal secretions and saliva. This makes your respiratory droplets more likely to infect someone with the cold. After 5 or 7 days, the virus is no longer reproducing in your body. And the remaining virus will be quickly killed by your immune system. This is why you are no longer contagious after this time.
What are the symptoms of the common cold?
Most of the time, the symptoms of the common cold are very mild. Different from flu symptoms, the symptoms of the common cold usually starts gradually. Usually, the common cold symptoms include:
- Runny or stuffy nose: Due to increased nasal discharge
- Sore throat
- Muscle or body aches
- Low fever: Most commonly present in small children and young adults
- Loss of appetite
What are the complications of a common cold?
Almost always, a common cold will pass without any complications. Whether you receive treatment or not, viral infection will get better in a few days. Still, a cold virus can be a risk factor to develop other types of infections.
For example, a cold can then turn into bacterial infections like ear infections, sinus infections, or even strep throat. This results in the inflammation of the mucosa of your upper and lower respiratory airways.
What is the prognosis or possible outcomes of the common cold?
The prognosis for a common cold is excellent in the great majority of the cases. As a viral infection, the cold will complete its natural course. This will happen either you take medications or not. It takes around 7 to 10 days for this to happen. After this time, you will likely feel better and have no complications at all.
Do chills or exposure to cold temperatures cause common cold?
Not really. As we mentioned, the cause of the common cold is a viral infection. If there is no virus, you won’t get sick by other means.
Nevertheless, viruses that cause the common cold spread more easily in lower temperatures. We can say that heat may even kill some of these viruses. This is why you are more likely to get a cold during flu season, corresponding to colder months. Also, cold weather can be a risk factor for colds because it can lower your immune system’s response to infections. Some doctors even think that during cold months people spend more time inside and close together. This can also be a risk factor to develop colds during this season.
How is it diagnosed?
Anyone can diagnose a common cold. It’s as simple as identifying the common symptoms of the cold. Most people don’t need doctor care during a cold infection. However, during the covid-19 pandemic, you should suspect that the novel coronavirus can cause your symptoms.
In this latter case, your doctor may have you tested to see if your symptoms are just a common cold. This test is done with a nasal swab, where they insert a swab in your nasal passage to take a sample. Then, this sample is tested to see if there’s the presence of a virus. By identifying the virus, a doctor can determine if you have a cold or something else. It’s not likely that doctors indicate laboratory studies or imaging tests to patients with a cold.
What is the difference between the common cold and the flu?
Contrary to the common cold, the flu has a unique virus as a possible cause, “The influenza virus.” Even though both are viral infections, the overall flu symptoms bother much more than the common cold’s symptoms.
Moreover, the risk for severe symptoms and complications in a susceptible population is more significant for people with the flu. Therefore, differentiating among them is crucial for both patients and doctors, foremost in particular groups of people. Luckily, the prevention of the flu is possible, thanks to the flu shot, while the common cold vaccine doesn’t exist.
Maybe you would want to take a look at The Flu.
What can be done if you catch a cold?
Keep in mind that there is no cure for the common cold. The cold will pass on its own, even if you don’t do anything. However, there are cold medicines and few things you can do to feel a little better during your cold:
- Drink plenty of liquids: Staying hydrated is important even if you don’t have a cold. This will help loosen any congestion you may have.
- Rest: Your body needs extra energy so that your immune system can fight infections. Rest during this period.
- To calm a sore throat: You can try saltwater gargles, hard candy, ice chips, or sore throat sprays.
- For stuffiness: Saline nasal drops work wonders.
- To relieve pain: Any over-the-counter pain medication would work.
- For the cough: Cough syrup with medications that are cough suppressants really helps the cold’s cough.
- Drink warm liquids: This can act as a decongestant because it increases mucus flow.
What is the duration?
The incubation period of a respiratory infection is the time that requires a person to manifest symptoms while already having the virus inside them. This time for the common cold usually lasts from 24 to 72 hours after close contact with people having the virus. The common cold symptoms could length from 3 to 7 days.
What types of doctors treat the common cold?
Like we mentioned before, most of the time, common colds don’t need medical treatment. Almost anyone can treat a common cold. However, family doctors, pediatricians, and internal medicine are the ones you can go to in case of a cold.
Can I prevent the common cold infection?
Some flu medication for prevention has been used with relative success. The remedies vary depending on if the patient is a child or an adult. Here I would like to only emphasize medications with scientific evidence in top medical journals.
For children, medication with successful outcomes includes chizukit, nasal irrigation with salt water (saline solution), probiotics, vitamin C, and supplementation with zinc.
Chizukit yielded relief for patients between 1 and 7 years. Nasal irrigation for children between 6 to 10 years. Probiotics for children from 3 to 5 years. Vitamin C for children below 12 years, and zinc supplementation for a wide range of ages, from 1 to sixteen years. Significantly doses of each treatment vary with age. Also, the duration of prevention treatment changes with the type of drug from weeks to months.
For adults, few medications appear helpful for preventing the cold. Religious taking of vitamin C doesn’t reduce the chances of getting the disease. Still, when the patient is infected, the duration of the symptoms is lesser. Daily use of garlic doesn’t help recover the illness but appears to reduce the number of cases. Sadly, using garlic as a treatment could have adverse outcomes as lousy odor or skin rash.
Frequently hand-washing was the only factor in association with a reduction of cases. The effectiveness of this action is excellent because it would be easily applicable daily.
When does a cold require a doctor’s care?
Seldom, your cold will require medical attention. However, keep an eye out for these signs that your cough may be getting worse:
- Unusually severe cold symptoms: Cold symptoms should be mild and resolve independently in a few days.
- High fever: Most colds don’t cause fever, but it’s usually low when they do.
- Ear pain: This may be a sign of an ear infection.
- Sinus type headache: Like pain behind your eyes or around your nose can be a sign of sinus infection.
- Your symptoms got better, but your cough got worse.
- Exacerbation of any chronic lung problem, like asthma.
Do you think you have this infection?
This tool is a Common Cold Symptoms Checker. It gathers the most important signs, symptoms, and risk factors for the infection. Therefore, the tool will tell anybody who uses the likelihood of their symptoms because of this disease.