“Treat it and it stays for seven days. Leave it alone and it lasts a week.”
Everyone knows this age -old adage about the illness, which is very irritating but so common on this earth that it carries the adjective ‘Common’ everywhere it goes. Yes. I am talking about ‘Common Cold’!
Doctors sometimes like to sound knowledgeable when they call it by fancy names like ‘Coryza’, ‘Acute viral nasopharyngitis’ and what not. But for most people, it’s cool to just call it ‘Cold’.
Unfortunately if you do not keep yourself well-informed then it is very easy to lose your cool while tackling this rather simple and harmless illness. So let’s get to know more about it.
What is Common Cold?
It is a viral illness affecting the upper respiratory tract, which can be caused by more than 200 types of viruses – commonest of them being Rhinovirus which is responsible for almost 1/3rd of the cases. Because it is more common in cold climates in the winter, it has got this name ‘Cold’.
It can occur at any age. It is common to have 5-8 such infections per year and the maximum occurrence is in first two years.
How is it transmitted?
Tiny droplets are released during sneezing and coughing of the patient. The droplet- contaminated hands and objects then carry the infection to other people.
What are the signs and symptoms of cold?
It all starts with sneezing, heavy head, runny nose, watery eyes, body-ache and sometimes with fever. This fever is usually mild in older children and adults but can be of high grade in infants and toddlers. The nasal discharge is initially watery but later changes colour from white to yellow to green.
In small babies, the nose-block caused by the cold leads to irritability and causes difficulty in breathing, feeding and sleeping. In the lying-down position, the nasal discharge drips down on throat and causes cough. The nose blockage leads to Eustachian tube blockage and causes decreased hearing and ear-pain. The noisy breathing sounds caused by the blocked nose are transmitted to chest where they can even be felt by hand.
What are its complications?
The probability of complications like sinus infection, croup, chest infection, asthma flare-up or ear infection makes it important for parents to recognize the danger signals to know when the events are taking turn for the worse.
What are the danger signals in cold?
One should watch out for following warning signs and if they are there then should take immediate medical opinion.
- Age less than 3 months
- High fever (more than 103*C) for more than 3 days.
- Prolonged Fever (101*C for more than 5 days).
- Rapid breathing
- Distressed breathing (flaring of nostrils, sucking in of chest/abdomen)
- Increasingly noisy breathing
- Severe ear-pain or ear discharge
- Persistent nasal discharge, which is foul- smelling or coloured, beyond 1 week.
- Sick look
- How do we treat cold?
Most of the ‘cough-cold’ medicines available in the market are containing anti-allergic and decongestant chemicals. They are unnecessary in most cases and have significant side-effects like drowsiness and drying up of secretions to be called really ‘safe’. Especially under the age of six years, they should be avoided and if used, should be used only under doctor’s supervision.
Vaporization with cool-mist humidifier is helpful in early resolution of cold. American Academy Of Paediatrics recommends avoiding warm steam inhalation in order to avoid the risk of scalds and burns. So DO NOT try to give steam-inhalation to your child by holding his head under a towel and telling him to inhale the steam coming from boiling water in an open vessel!
But practically speaking, warm steam inhalation can be useful if done from a safe distance with a closed, funneled, plastic-body steamer. The trick is to place the steamer on a table/ stool near the child’s bed, when the child is asleep and let the steam humidify the air surrounding him. The caretaker should always be around while the steamer is on.
Antibiotics are unadvisable and unnecessary in most cases of common cold. They are only needed when the bacterial complications are suspected and should only be given with doctor’s prescription.
Zinc and Vitamin C are touted to have cold-curing properties but their use is mostly experimental.
How do we treat nasal blockage?
In children, especially in infants the nose-block remains the most irritating symptom interfering with breathing, feeding and sleeping. But the medicated nasal drops/sprays are potentially harmful in common colds and are to be avoided. Instead the nose-block is treated with the normal saline nose drops/sprays.
The normal saline solution is nothing but plain salt-water. It can easily be prepared at home by dissolving a quarter (1/4) tea-spoon of common salt in a cup of boiled water.
With a clean dropper or a cotton wick 1-2 drops should be instilled in each nostril with the baby in lying down position and its neck extended. The timing of the instillation should be about 15-20 minutes prior to the feeding and before sleep. They can be safely used as often as 5-6 times a day.
Saline nasal sprays are also available without prescription and they are easier to use and perhaps more efficient in relieving nasal block.
Suction bulbs can be used to suck out the secretions to relieve the nasal block. They are easier to use in young infants but toddlers may resist such measures.
How do we prevent colds?
There is no specific vaccine to prevent colds but we can take some simple measures to avoid its spread from person to person.
- Avoid contact with infected persons.
- Frequent hand-washing with soap-water.
- Teaching the child to cover his mouth with a tissue or a handkerchief while sneezing and coughing.
Simple supportive measures and a patient, smiling attitude are the best methods to counter this maddening illness!
Some Interesting Facts:
- Frequent colds in first 2 years are quite normal.
- The nasal discharge in any common cold normally changes from watery to white to yellow to green over the passing days.
- Antibiotics are not useful in most colds. They are only necessary when the doctor suspects a bacterial infection.
- Due to their potentially dangerous side-effects, OTC (Over The Counter) Cough-Cold medicines are not advisable under six years of age.
- Medicated nasal drops/sprays are harmful in common colds and only normal saline drops/sprays are sufficient.