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In the Know - All about...the Common Cold

In the Know

All About… the Common Cold



If you think, “What’s there to know already about the common cold?” we bet we could surprise you: the common cold causes about one billion colds a year in the U.S. alone.


What’s more, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), those billion infections cause some 22 million lost school days a year in the U.S. alone.


And despite its name, the common cold has little to do with cold.  It’s just more common when it’s cold outside because that’s when more people spend more time inside—spreading more viruses.


Read on for a host of common-cold facts common and obscure.




The common cold is a viral infection of the nose and throat.  Specifically, it’s a viral infection of the inside linings of the nostrils and the upper respiratory tract.  The virus causing the common cold is called the rhinovirus (“rhino” as in Latin for “nose”).  There are many strains of rhinovirus.


While the common cold may not feel harmless, it most often is.


Children younger than six are at greatest risk of colds, but healthy adults can also expect to have two or three colds annually.


Most people recover from a common cold in a week or ten days.  Symptoms might last longer in people who smoke.  If symptoms don’t improve, see your doctor.


Sneezing, scratchy throat, runny nose—everyone knows the first signs of a cold, probably the most common illness known.  These symptoms are usually caused by a viral infection.


Although the common cold is usually mild, with symptoms lasting one to two weeks, it is a leading cause of doctor visits and missed days from school and work.


Children have about six to ten colds a year.  One important reason why colds are so common in children is because they are often in close contact with each other in daycare centers and schools. In families with children in school, the number of colds per child can be as high as 12 a year. Adults average about two to four colds a year, although the range varies widely.  Women, especially those aged 20 to 30 years, have more colds than men, possibly because of their closer contact with children.  On average, people older than age 60 have fewer than one cold a year.


In the U.S., most colds occur during the fall and winter. Beginning in late August or early September, the rate of colds increases slowly for a few weeks and remains high until March or April, when it declines. The seasonal variation may relate to the opening of schools and to cold weather, which prompt people to spend more time indoors and increase the chances that viruses will spread to you from someone else.


Seasonal changes in relative humidity also may affect the prevalence of colds. The most common cold-causing viruses survive better when humidity is low-the colder months of the year. Cold weather also may make the inside lining o your nose drier and more vulnerable to viral infection.



Symptoms and causes

Symptoms of a common cold usually appear one to three days after exposure to a cold-causing virus.  Signs and symptoms, which can vary from person to person, might include:

•           Runny or stuffy nose

•           Sore throat

•           Cough

•           Congestion

•           Slight body aches or a mild headache

•           Sneezing

•           Low-grade fever

•           Generally feeling unwell (malaise)


The discharge from your nose may become thicker and yellow or green in color as a common cold runs its course. This isn't an indication of a bacterial infection.



Diagnosis and treatment


When to see a doctor

For adults — seek medical attention if you have:

•           Fever greater than 101.3 F (38.5 C)

•           Fever lasting five days or more or returning after a fever-free period

•           Shortness of breath

•           Wheezing

•           Severe sore throat, headache or sinus pain


For children — in general, your child doesn't need to see the doctor for a common cold. But seek medical attention right away if your child has any of the following:

•           Fever of 100.4 F (38 C) in newborns up to 12 weeks

•           Rising fever or fever lasting more than two days in a child of any age

•           Symptoms that worsen or fail to improve

•           Severe symptoms, such as headache or cough

•           Wheezing

•           Ear pain

•           Extreme fussiness

•           Unusual drowsiness

•           Lack of appetite




Although many types of viruses can cause a common cold, rhinoviruses are the most common culprit.


A cold virus enters your body through your mouth, eyes or nose. The virus can spread through droplets in the air when someone who is sick coughs, sneezes or talks.


It also spreads by hand-to-hand contact with someone who has a cold or by sharing contaminated objects, such as utensils, towels, toys or telephones. If you touch your eyes, nose or mouth after such contact or exposure, you're likely to catch a cold.


Risk factors

These factors can increase your chances of getting a cold:

•           Age. Children younger than six are at greatest risk of colds, especially if they spend time in child-care settings.

•           Weakened immune system. Having a chronic illness or otherwise weakened immune system increases your risk.

•           Time of year. Both children and adults are more susceptible to colds in fall and winter, but you can get a cold any time.

•           Smoking. You're more likely to catch a cold and to have more severe colds if you smoke.

•           Exposure. If you're around many people, such as at school or on an airplane, you're likely to be exposed to viruses that cause colds.



•           Acute ear infection (otitis media). This occurs when bacteria or viruses enter the space behind the eardrum. Typical signs and symptoms include earaches and, in some cases, a green or yellow discharge from the nose or the return of a fever following a common cold.

•           Asthma. A cold can trigger an asthma attack.

•           Acute sinusitis. In adults or children, a common cold that doesn't resolve can lead to inflammation and infection of the sinuses (sinusitis).

•           Other secondary infections. These include strep throat (streptococcal pharyngitis), pneumonia, and croup or bronchiolitis in children. These infections need to be treated by a doctor.




There's no vaccine for the common cold, but you can take common-sense precautions to slow the spread of cold viruses:

•           Wash your hands. Clean your hands thoroughly and often with soap and water, and teach your children the importance of hand-washing. If soap and water aren't available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

•           Disinfect your stuff. Clean kitchen and bathroom countertops with disinfectant, especially when someone in your family has a cold. Wash children's toys periodically.

•           Use tissues. Sneeze and cough into tissues. Discard used tissues right away, then wash your hands carefully.


Teach children to sneeze or cough into the bend of their elbow when they don't have a tissue. That way they cover their mouths without using their hands.

•           Don't share. Don't share drinking glasses or utensils with other family members. Use your own glass or disposable cups when you or someone else is sick. Label the cup or glass with the name of the person with the cold.

•           Steer clear of colds. Avoid close contact with anyone who has a cold.

•           Choose your child care center wisely. Look for a child care setting with good hygiene practices and clear policies about keeping sick children at home.

•           Take care of yourself. Eating well, getting exercise and enough sleep, and managing stress might help you keep colds at bay.



Myths and Facts about the Common Cold

As you read this, five percent of us are waging war against the common cold. Up to a billion colds a year occur in the U.S. alone, causing about 60 million lost days of school and 50 million lost days of work—adding up to $25 billion in lost productivity. To make up for it, Americans spend around $5 billion on over-the-counter remedies.


Colds are the leading cause of visits to the doctor: Antibiotics are prescribed for more than 60 percent of common colds, despite the fact that bacteria are involved in only two percent.


The Cold, Hard Facts

A single cold virus can have 16 million offspring within 24 hours.

The velocity of a sneeze is about as fast as a professional baseball pitcher can throw a fastball – about 100 miles (150 km) per hour.


Mass Myths

You probably have believed one or two of these myths—they’ve been around a long time. So let’s put them to bed!

  • Being cold causes a cold.  Perhaps the most widespread cold myth of all states that exposure to cold temperatures causes people to catch colds. People have believed this folk wisdom for years, including the popular 18th century doctor William Buchan.  This is presumably because colds are much more common in the winter, and cold air often causes a runny nose.  However, studies from the 1950s and 1960s showed that when volunteers (actually, prison inmates) were kept chilly or very cold, they were not more susceptible to infection with a cold virus, and when they had a cold, it did not make their colds worse.

  • Make the most of it. Some people believe that treating cold symptoms is bad for you because they help you recover. But research has shown that about a quarter of people who catch a cold don’t have any symptoms, and beat the virus just as easily. Furthermore, sneezing and runny noses do not eliminate the virus completely, as it is still reproducing in the cells of the nasal lining. In addition, the more you treat your symptoms, the less likely you are to spread your cold.

  • Feed a cold and starve a fever (or vice versa).  The origins of this saying are unclear, but it may have begun as sensible advice that was misinterpreted somewhere along the line. In any case, it probably is not a good idea. Eating well supports your immune system, and you need more fluids than usual when you have a cold if you want to avoid dehydration.

  • Antibiotics cure the common cold.  As noted above, antibiotics usually do not help a cold. Antibiotics work against bacteria, while most colds are viral. When you have a bacterial infection, antibiotics may not be able to treat it.  They may actually make colds worse by killing the ‘friendly’ bacteria and creating an environment more hospitable to the virus.  And just in case you aren’t already suffering enough, antibiotics can have side effects such as diarrhea and yeast infections.

  • There is, however, one cold myth that contains a grain of truth: Eat chicken soup. Maimonides, a 12th-century rabbi and physician, recommended “soup from a fat hen,” and chicken soup has been a traditional cold remedy ever since.  While it certainly feels good when you have a dry, ticklish throat, most believe that ‘Jewish penicillin’ has no special powers to cure a cold.  However, a recent scientific study found that “Chicken soup may provide relief from the symptoms of the cold through its synergistic properties” (in other words, the combination of ingredients and the fact that it’s a warm liquid). The study concluded that chicken soup helps the body clear mucus from the bronchial tubes faster and more effectively than other liquids. It does so because inhaling its warm vapors raises the temperature of the nose and loosens thickened secretions.  According to the researchers, the active ingredients in traditional recipes include celery, onions, carrots, parsley, mushrooms, parsnips, sage, thyme, salt and pepper. These are known for their medicinal and antioxidant properties.


In any case, staying well nourished can only help in the fight against your cold.