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Common Cold

The common cold is a contagious respiratory infection caused by viruses -- more than 200 viral strains can cause the common cold. Of these, the rhinoviruses are most frequently responsible for colds.

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Common Cold

The common cold is a contagious respiratory infection caused by viruses -- more than 200 viral strains can cause the common cold. Of these, the rhinoviruses are most frequently responsible for colds. Adults catch 2 - 3 colds, while children may have four or more episodes annually.

Symptoms

  • Stage 1 (Days 1 to 3)
    After contracting a cold virus, you will develop throat scratchiness, sneezing, runny nose, nasal congestion, cough, and hoarseness.  
  • Stage 2 (Days 4 to 7)
    Symptoms in the early stage further aggravate and are accompanied by headache, body aches, fatigue, watery eyes, and low-grade fever.
  • Stage 3 (Days 8 to 10)
    Your symptoms start to resolve, but you may still have a nagging cough from the respiratory tract infection, which can persist for up to 2 months. If your symptoms do not improve and your fever returns, see a doctor for possible secondary complications of sinusitis, bronchitis, and pneumonia.

Common cold symptoms in babies

When having a cold, babies may have a runny nose with clear or yellow or green mucus, sneezing, cough, fever (38.3 to 38.9 degrees Celsius), swollen glands, drooling, loss of appetite due to sore throat, and difficulty swallowing. They may be highly irritable from malaise.

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When to see a doctor

For adults, it is advisable to seek medical care if:

  • A fever is a body temperature greater than 38.5 degrees Celsius and persists longer than three days.
  • Return of a fever after a fever-free period.
  • Shortness of breath, wheezing, intense sore throat, headache, and pain in the sinus

For children, immediately take them to see a doctor if they are or have:

  • Less than two months old and develop a fever.
  • Rising fever persists for longer than two days.
  • Intense headaches and pain in the throat and ears.
  • Cough for longer than three weeks.
  • Sleepier and crankier than usual.
  • Loss of appetite, which can lead to dehydration.
  • Flaring of nostrils, signaling breathing difficulty.
  • Ribcage expansion when breathing.
  • Wheezing and rapid breathing.
  • Blue lips.
  • Sicker.

Causes

Different viruses can cause symptoms of a cold. But the rhinoviruses cause most of the common colds. There are more than 100 strains of rhinoviruses. When you contract one viral strain, your body produces immunity specific to that strain. But there remain so many other strains that you are not immune to. That is why you can have many colds throughout your lifetime.

  • Direct contact
    Direct contact is the primary mode of transmission. People with a common cold usually carry the virus on their hands, which can be viable for up to 2 hours. If you touch the infected person’s hand and subsequently touch your face, the virus can invade your body, leading to a viral infection. 
  • Contact with a contaminated surface.
    Many cold viruses can survive for several hours on surfaces such as countertops, door handles, or phones. If you touch those surfaces and then your eyes, nose, and mouth, you can become infected with a common cold.
  • Inhaling airborne droplets with viral particles.
    A person with a cold may cough or sneeze, releasing droplets containing viral particles into the air. People nearby can catch those droplets, leading to transmission through the eyes, nose, or mouth. To reduce transmission risk, cover the mouth when coughing or sneezing.
    Cold viruses do not spread through saliva; therefore, kissing does not transmit common colds. However, if you are in direct contact with an infected person, you can inhale the viral-laden droplets. The common cold is not due to cold weather. Some viruses that cause a cold may be more prevalent in certain seasons, such as winter.  

Diagnosis

  • History taking and physical exam.
    Your doctor will examine your nostrils, throat, lung, and lymph nodes in your neck for signs of swelling, redness, and inflammation.
  • Nasal swab
    To rule out COVID-19, influenza, or other suspected conditions.
  • Chest X-rays
    To help evaluate if you have pneumonia or bronchitis.

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Treatment

Usually, the common cold improves within 7-10 days despite no treatment. However, you may still have coughs for another 2-3 days. Currently, there is no cure for the common cold. To alleviate your symptoms, you should have plenty of rest, drink adequate fluids, rinse your nose with saline, and humidify the air. Do not use antibiotics, as they are for bacterial and not viral infections.

Pain relievers

  • Adults can take paracetamol or ibuprofen to ease the discomfort of fever, headache, or sore throat.
  • For children, paracetamol or ibuprofen can be given with caution as follows:  
    • Do not give over-the-counter medications to an infant younger than three months old. Take your child to see a doctor for a proper diagnosis.
    • Do not give ibuprofen to infants younger than 6 months old if they are vomiting frequently.
    • Do not give aspirin to children and teenagers because there is an association between the use of aspirin in children and teenagers who have influenza and chicken pox with Reye's syndrome, which can affect the brain and liver. Reye's syndrome is a rare but fatal disease.
    • Always read the drug information leaflet or consult your doctor before giving any medications to your child to prevent drug overdoses. Do not use pain relievers for a long period.

Decongestant drops or sprays

  • Adults can use decongestant drops or sprays for up to 5 days. Avoid prolonged use of decongestant drops or sprays, as it can cause rebound symptoms when stopping the drugs.
  • Children six or younger should not use decongestants; those over six should consult a doctor before use. 

Cough syrups

  • Adults should read and follow the directions before use to avoid accidental overdose. Some cough syrups may contain the same active ingredients as pain relievers or decongestants, which can lead to overdose.
  • Children should not take cough syrups due to potential overdose.

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Home remedies

  • Stay at home until your fever or cough resolves.
  • Drink lots of fluids such as water, juice, and warm lemon water, or eat clear broth. Refrain from drinking caffeine and alcohol, which can cause your body to lose fluids faster, leading to dehydration.
  • Sip warm liquids to soothe your sore throat and loosen a stuffy nose. Add honey to help relieve your cough. However, one should not give it to children younger than one year old, as it can cause infant botulism.
  • Use a cool-mist humidifier if the air is dry. It can soothe coughing and stuffy nose. Clean the humidifier regularly to prevent bacterial and mold buildup.
  • Gargle with saltwater to soothe a sore throat. However, it is not advisable for children younger than six years, who may not do it properly.
  • Use nasal saline drops or sprays to moisten your nostrils and loosen mucus.
  • Use a suction bulb to remove mucus from the nostrils of an infant or young child. Use saline nasal drops to loosen mucus.
  • Take ice chips or lozenges to relieve a sore throat. However, young children, less than six, should not take them due to choking hazards.  

Preparation before seeing a doctor.

  • Take note of the symptoms you have.
  • List medications and dietary supplements you are taking.
  • Write down questions you would like to ask your doctor.

Sample of questions

  • What are the causes of my symptoms?
  • Do I have to undergo any tests?
  • What treatment do you recommend?
  • When will my symptoms improve or resolve?
  • When can I go back to school or work?
  • How should I manage my preexisting health conditions? 

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Published: 13 Aug 2023

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