The common cold is an infectious disease of the upper respiratory tract that primarily affects the nose and the throat. More than 200 strains of viruses can cause the common cold, of which the rhinovirus is the most common one. Children and infants may be more prone to the common cold, contracting it anywhere between six to 12 times a year. Adults may suffer three to four times annually.
Causes and Symptoms of Common Cold
Although a mild infection at most times, the common cold ranks highest among the reasons for doctor’s visits and days off from school and work.
The viruses that cause a cold are:
- Parainfluenza virus
- Respiratory syncytial virus
Of the five, the rhinovirus is the most common causative for the condition and can spread through the tiny droplets released by sneezing or coughing. The virus can enter the body through the nose, mouth and eyes.
The symptoms associated with the condition usually occur after two or three days of being exposed to the virus and include:
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Cough and sore throat
- Slight body ache
- Low-grade fever
Although the cold viruses are present in the environment at all times, certain factors may increase the risk of an infection, including:
The infection seems to affect infants and pre-schoolers, who have developing immune systems and older adults with weakened immunity.
Medical conditions like AIDS, sickle cell anemia and cystic fibrosis can increase a person’s risk.
The cold and flu are most common in the winter months mainly because the cold winter can dry up the nasal passages, making them more susceptible to the cold virus.
An existing allergic disease of the nose and throat (allergic rhinitis) may increase the risk of the common cold.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Common Cold
The symptoms of a cold generally overlap with the flu and hence may be difficult to diagnose. However, these symptoms are generally less severe than those produced by flu. Several tests are available that can isolate and identify the viruses causing the respiratory infections.
Though not commonly used, these tests can be very useful for ruling out the flu. In case the symptoms do not subside, doctors may recommend a nasal swab test to verify the type of infection. A test may also be required to rule out or diagnose allergic conditions like sinusitis and rhinitis.
There is no known cure for a cold and it is usually left to run its course while its symptoms are addressed with:
- Medications like aspirin and ibuprofen (not recommended for children)
- Decongestant nasal sprays to release the mucus build-up and relieve congestion
- Cough remedies like cough drops, syrups, throat sprays and gargling with warm water may help relieve a sore throat and a cough
Some alternative therapies that might help are:
- Supplements including zinc and vitamins A and C
- Natural ingredients like cayenne, ginger, honey, mustard and echinacea may boost respiratory health and clear congestion
- Essential oils like rosemary, eucalyptus and lavender may provide anti-microbial benefits
- Yoga and meditation may help reduce stress and anxiety to relieve inflammation of the nasal passages and throat
Some of the complications that may result from a persistent cold are:
- Acute ear infection, mostly seen in babies and children
- Wheezing, in children with asthma
- Pneumonia in severe infections
Most of the symptoms associated with the common cold go away within a week, but if they don’t, it is recommended to visit your doctor to rule out a sinus infection, allergies or other medical problems.
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