Common cold: causes and treatment

The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory system, including the nose, throat, sinuses, eustachian tubes, windpipe, larynx, and bronchi. Although more than 200 different viruses can cause a common cold, 30-50% are caused by a group called rhinoviruses. Almost all colds go away within two weeks without complications. Colds, sometimes called rhinovirus or coronavirus infections, are the most common illness to strike any part of the body. It is estimated that the average person has more than 50 colds in their lifetime. Anyone can catch a cold, although preschool and elementary-age children get them more frequently than teens and adults. Repeated exposure to cold-causing viruses creates partial immunity.

Although most colds go away on their own without complications, they are a leading cause of doctor visits and lost time at work and school. The treatment of cold symptoms has spawned a multi-million dollar over-the-counter drug industry. The cold season in Kashmir usually begins in early fall and lasts until early spring. While it’s not true that getting wet or being in a draft causes a cold (a person has to come in contact with the virus to catch a cold), some conditions can lead to increased susceptibility. These include:

• Fatigue and overwork.

• Emotional stress.

• Poor nutrition.

• To smoke.

• Live or work in crowded conditions.

The common cold makes the upper respiratory system less resistant to bacterial infections. Secondary bacterial infection can lead to middle ear infection, bronchitis, pneumonia, sinus infection, or strep throat. People with chronic lung disease, asthma, diabetes, or a weakened immune system are more likely to develop these complications.

Causes and symptoms

Colds are caused by over 200 different viruses. The most common groups are rhinoviruses and coronaviruses. Different groups of viruses are more infectious at different seasons of the year, but knowing the exact virus that causes the common cold is not important in treatment. People with colds are contagious during the first two to four days of infection. The common cold is spread from person to person in several ways. When an infected person coughs, sneezes or speaks, tiny droplets of fluid containing the virus are expelled. If other people inhale them, the virus can build up in their nose and airways.

Colds can also be transmitted through direct contact. If a person with a cold touches their runny nose or watery eyes and then shakes hands with another person, part of the virus is transferred to the uninfected person. If that person then touches their mouth, nose or eyes, the virus is transferred to an environment where it can breed and cause a cold.

Finally, cold viruses can be spread by inanimate objects (doorknobs, phones, toys) that are contaminated with the virus. It is a common mode of transmission in child care centers. If a child with a cold touches their runny nose and then plays with a toy, part of the virus can be transferred to the toy. When another child plays with the toy soon after, they may catch some of the virus on their hands. The second child then touches their contaminated hands in their eyes, nose or mouth and transfers some of the cold virus to themselves. Once acquired, the common cold virus attaches itself to the lining of the nasal passages and sinuses. This causes the infected cells to release a chemical called histamine. Histamine increases blood flow to infected cells, causing swelling, congestion, and increased mucus production. Within one to three days, the infected person begins to show symptoms of a cold.

The first symptoms of a cold are a tickle in the throat, a runny nose and sneezing. The initial discharge from the nose is clear and thin. Later, it turns into a thick yellow or greenish discharge. Most adults do not develop a fever when they catch a cold. Young children can develop a low fever of up to 102 ° F (38.9 ° C). In addition to a runny nose and fever, signs of a cold include cough, sneezing, nasal congestion, headache, muscle pain, chills, sore throat, hoarseness, tearing, tiredness and lack of appetite. The cough that accompanies a cold is usually intermittent and dry.

Most people start to feel better about four to five days after their cold symptoms become noticeable. All symptoms usually go away within ten days, with the exception of a dry cough which can last for up to three weeks. The common cold makes people more susceptible to bacterial infections such as strep throat, middle ear infections, and sinus infections. A person whose cold does not start to get better within a week; or who experiences chest pain, fever for more than a few days, difficulty breathing, bluish lips or nails, a cough that causes greenish-yellow or grayish sputum, a rash, swollen glands or whitish spots on the tonsils or throat should see a doctor to see if they have contracted a secondary bacterial infection that needs to be treated with an antibiotic.


Colds are diagnosed by looking at a person’s symptoms. There are no readily available laboratory tests to detect the common cold virus. However, a doctor may do a throat culture or a blood test to rule out a secondary infection. The flu is sometimes mistaken for a cold, but the flu causes much more severe symptoms and usually a fever. Allergies to molds or pollens can also make your nose runny. Allergies are generally more persistent than the common cold. An allergist can do tests to determine if the common cold-like symptoms are caused by an allergic reaction. In addition, some people have a runny nose when they go out in the winter and breathe cold air. This type of runny nose is not a symptom of a cold.


There are no medicines that cure the common cold. Over time, the body’s immune system will make antibodies to fight the infection, and the common cold will go away without any intervention. Antibiotics are useless for a cold. However, pharmaceutical companies spend a lot of money promoting products designed to relieve cold symptoms. These products generally contain antihistamines, decongestants and / or pain relievers. Antihistamines block the action of the chemical histamine that is produced when the cold virus invades cells lining the nasal passages. Histamine increases blood flow and causes cells to swell.

Antihistamines are taken to relieve the symptoms of sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes, and congestion. Side effects are dry mouth and drowsiness, especially with the first few doses. People who drive or use hazardous equipment should not take antihistamines. Some people have allergic reactions to antihistamines.

Nasal sprays and nasal drops are other products promoted to reduce nasal congestion. These usually contain a decongestant, but the decongestant can work faster and stronger than those found in pills or liquids because it is applied directly into the nose. The congestion returns after a few hours. People can become addicted to nasal sprays and nasal drops. If used for a long time, users may experience withdrawal symptoms when these products are discontinued. Nasal sprays and nasal drops should not be used for more than a few days.

People respond to different cold medicines differently and may find some more helpful than others. A drug may be effective at first and then lose some of its effectiveness. Children sometimes react differently from adults. Over-the-counter cold remedies should not be given to infants without first consulting a doctor.

In addition to the optional use of over-the-counter cold remedies, there are self-care steps people can take to ease their discomfort. These include:

• Drink plenty of fluids, but avoid acidic juices, which can irritate the throat.

• Gargle with lukewarm salt water for a sore throat.

• No smoking.

• Get enough rest.

• Use a cool mist room humidifier to relieve congestion and sore throat.

• Rub petroleum jelly or other lubricant under the nose to avoid irritation.


Over time, the body will make antibodies to cure a cold. Most colds last a week to 10 days. Most people start to feel better within four or five days. Sometimes a cold leads to a secondary bacterial infection that causes strep throat, bronchitis, pneumonia, sinus infection, or middle ear infection. These conditions usually go away quickly when treated with an antibiotic.


Colds cannot be prevented because the viruses that cause the common cold are common and highly infectious. However, there are some steps that individuals can take to reduce their spread. These include:

• Wash hands well and frequently, especially after touching your nose or before handling food.

• Cover your mouth and nose when sneezing.

• Dispose of used tissues properly.

• Avoid close contact with a person with a cold during the first two to four days of their infection.

• Do not share food, utensils or cups with anyone.

• Avoid crowded places where cold germs can spread.

• Eat healthy and get enough sleep.

(The author is a practicing physician)

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