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The common cold leads to more health care provider visits and absences from school and work than any other illness each year. It is caused by a virus and is easily spread to others. It’s not caused by cold weather.
A cold is caused by a virus that causes inflammation of the membranes that line the nose and throat. It can result from any one of more than 200 different viruses. But, the rhinoviruses and the coronaviruses cause most colds.
The common cold is very easily spread to others. It's often spread through airborne droplets that are coughed or sneezed into the air by the sick person. The droplets are then inhaled by another person. Colds can also be spread when a sick person touches you or a surface (like a doorknob) that you then touch.
Contrary to popular belief, cold weather or being chilled doesn't cause a cold. However, more colds do occur during the cold season (early fall to late winter). This is probably due to a variety of factors, including:
Everyone is at risk for the common cold. People are most likely to have colds during fall and winter, starting in late August or early September until March or April. The increased incidence of colds during the cold season may be attributed to the fact that more people are indoors and close to each other. In addition, many cold viruses thrive in low humidity, making the nasal passages drier and more vulnerable to infection.
Children suffer more colds each year than adults, due to their immature immune systems and to the close physical contact with other children at school or day care. In fact, the average child will have between 6 to 10 colds a year. The average adult will get 2 to 4 colds a year.
Each person may experience symptoms differently. Common symptoms may include:
Colds usually start 2 to 3 days after the virus enters the body and symptoms last from several days to several weeks.
Cold symptoms may look like other medical conditions. Always consult your health care provider for a diagnosis if your symptoms are severe.
A cold and the flu (influenza) are two different illnesses. A cold is relatively harmless and usually clears up by itself, although sometimes it may lead to a secondary infection, such as an ear infection. However, the flu can lead to complications, such as pneumonia and even death. What may seem like a cold, could be the flu. Be aware of these differences:
Low or no fever
Sometimes a headache
A headache very common
Stuffy, runny nose
Mild, hacking cough
Cough, often becoming severe
Slight aches and pains
Often severe aches and pains
Several weeks of fatigue
Sometimes a sore throat
Normal energy level or may feel sluggish
Most common colds are diagnosed based on reported symptoms. However, cold symptoms may be similar to certain bacterial infections, allergies, and other medical conditions. Always consult your health care provider for a diagnosis if your symptoms are severe.
Currently, there is no medication available to cure or shorten the duration of the common cold. However, the following are some treatments that may help to relieve some symptoms of the cold:
Because colds are caused by viruses, antibiotics don't work. Antibiotics are only effective when given to treat bacterial infections.
Do not give aspirin to a child who has fever. Aspirin, when given as treatment for viral illnesses in children, has been associated with Reye syndrome. This is a potentially serious or deadly disorder in children.
Colds can lead to secondary infections, including bacterial, middle ear, and sinus infections that may require treatment with antibiotics. If you have a cold along with high fever, sinus pain, significantly swollen glands, or a mucus-producing cough, see your doctor. You may need additional treatment.
The best way to avoid catching cold is to wash your hands often and avoid close contact with people who have colds. When around people with colds, do not touch your nose or eyes, because your hands may be contaminated with the virus.
If you have a cold, cough and sneeze in facial tissue and dispose of the tissue promptly. Then wash your hands right away. Also clean surfaces with disinfectants that kill viruses can halt the spread of the common cold. Research has shown that rhinoviruses may survive up to 3 hours outside of the nasal lining.
If your symptoms get worse or you have new symptoms, let your health care provider know. If your symptoms don't improve within a few days, call your provider, as you could have another type of infection.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:
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