Doctors may call it by fancy names like ‘Coryza’, ‘Acute viral nasopharyngitis’ and what not; but most people just call it ‘Cold’. Since it is so common across the globe, it is also called ‘Common Cold’.
It is mostly a rather simple and harmless illness, but thanks to its irritating nature, it is easy to lose your cool and rush for unnecessary medicines. So, let’s get to know more about it.
What is Common Cold?
It is a viral illness affecting the upper respiratory tract (nose and throat), which can be caused by more than 200 types of viruses – commonest of them being Rhinovirus, Coronavirus, RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus) and Para-Influenza virus. Since 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.
What are the risk factors for Common Cold?
Infancy and young childhood, weakened immunity, crowded settings (school, childcare centers, planes, trains and buses) and cold seasons (Fall and Winter) are the main risk factors for common cold.
How is Cold 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. The virus enters the body through nose, throat and eyes.
What are the Common Cold symptoms?
It all starts with sneezing, runny nose, sore throat, watery eyes, heavy head, 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 color 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 the common cold complications?
The probability of complications like middle ear infection, sinus infection, chest infection, asthma flare-up or croup makes it important for parents to recognize the warning signs to know when the events are taking turn for the worse.
When is medical attention needed in common cold?
Although most of the common cold cases are mild and self-limited, it is wise to seek medical opinion with certain warning signs like:
- Age less than 3 months
- Persistent fever more than 2 days in children and more than 3 days in adults
- Return of fever after fever-free period
- Severe ear-pain or ear discharge
- Breathing problems- rapid breathing, shortness of breath, wheezing or chest pain
- Persistent nasal discharge, which is foul- smelling or colored, beyond 1 week.
- Sick look, lethargy, fussiness, or excessive crying in babies
- Drowsiness or extreme headaches
- Overall severe or worsening symptoms
What is common cold treatment?
“Treat it and it stays for seven days. Leave it alone and it lasts a week.” The famous adage reminds us that going overboard with a load of medicines is unnecessary in most Common Cold cases.
The treatment of common cold as with any viral illness is only supportive and symptomatic. It cannot be cured.
- Increase fluid intake (water, juices, soups, lime/lemon water with or without honey)
- Drink warm liquids
- Warm Salt-water gargles (1/4-1/2 teaspoon of salt in a cup of warm water)
- Humidification and vaporization with Cool-mist vaporizer help in easing up breathing and thinning the secretions.
- Hot steam inhalation has a potential to scald and burn, and not advisable- especially in children. 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.
- Avoid smoking, caffeine, and alcohol.
Common analgesic-antipyretic Paracetamol is enough to take care of most common cold symptoms like body-ache, headache, throat pain or fever. Strong analgesic-antipyretic medicines are not necessary.
Anti-allergic medicines such as Cetrizine are only useful in allergic colds. Such medicines can lead to side-effects like drowsiness or drying of secretions.
Decongestant medicines such as Pseudoephedrine or Phenylephrine reduce the nasal congestion or stuffiness by contracting the local blood vessels to reduce blood flow to the nasal mucosal membranes.
Such medicines can be used in adults and children over 12 years of age. In children between 6-12 years, they can be occasionally used under medical supervision. Under 6 years of age, they are not recommended.
Side-effects like irregular or fast heartbeats, high blood pressure, headache, nausea or restlessness are the drawbacks of these medicines.
Over-the-counter (OTC) ‘Cough-Cold’ medicines:
Most of the OTC ‘Cough-Cold’ medicines are permutations and combinations of anti-allergic, decongestant and analgesic-antipyretic medicines.
Multiple studies have found no significant benefits in their use for cold treatment. Mixing of multiple medicines in such preparations increase the chances of wrong dosage and side-effects of their individual components.
In most common cold cases, antibiotics are needless as it is a viral illness. Only when a secondary bacterial infection is suspected, a doctor may prescribe an antibiotic.
In older children and adults, medicated lozenges may prove soothing for throat. In young children, they are a choking hazard and to be avoided.
Vitamin and Mineral supplements:
Vitamin C and Zinc supplements have shown to reduce the severity and duration of colds in some studies. Supplements of Vitamin A, D or E have not shown much impact.
Nasal drops and sprays
For children, simple saline nasal drops or sprays are safe and effective to clear the nasal blockage. A suction bulb may be used in infants to clear the secretions after using the nasal drops or spray.
In adults and sometimes in children older than 6 years, medicated decongestant nasal drops or sprays such as oxymetazoline can be used to clear severe nasal blockage. Such medicated drops or sprays shouldn’t be used for more than a week. Their overuse may lead to rebound of symptoms.
Herbal medicine made from Echinacea species (Cone-flower) has been found to be effective in reducing severity and duration of cold. It is quite safe and can be used under medical guidance.
Cold Vs Flu and Cold Vs Covid
Cold mainly shows symptoms such as sneezing and runny or blocked nose. It is a self-limited illness in most cases. The other symptoms such as sore throat, fever or aches and pains are milder.
Influenza or Flu symptoms are more generalized such as fever, chills, aches, and pains in addition to sore throat and runny or blocked nose. The symptoms are much more severe and the potential for complications higher.
Covid symptoms are more like Flu and sometimes indistinguishable. Loss of taste or smell is a unique symptom for Covid, which is not there in Flu.
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.
- Avoid sharing objects (handkerchiefs, clothes, or utensils) of infected persons
- Cleaning common surfaces, which may be contaminated.
- Frequent handwashing with soap-water.
- Covering mouth with a tissue or a handkerchief while sneezing and coughing.
- Avoid crowded places.
Simple supportive measures and a patient, smiling attitude are the best methods to counter this maddening illness!
Common Cold: Myth versus Reality
|Frequent colds in first 2 years are dangerous.||Frequent colds in first 2 years are quite normal.|
|Yellow or green nasal discharge in a cold is abnormal and needs immediate treatment.||The nasal discharge in any common cold normally changes from watery to white to yellow to green over the passing days.|
|Antibiotics are a must for any severe cold.||Antibiotics are not useful in most colds. They are only necessary when the doctor suspects a bacterial infection.|
|OTC (Over-the-counter) Cough-Cold medicines are okay to use at any age.||Due to their potentially dangerous side-effects, OTC Cough-Cold medicines are not advisable under six years of age.|
|Medicated nasal drops/sprays are necessary in relieving the nose-block of common colds.||Medicated nasal drops/sprays are harmful in common colds and only normal saline drops/sprays are sufficient.|