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Common Cold

A cold is a contagious viral infection of the mucous linings of the upper respiratory tract, including the nose, throat, and sinuses. More than 100 viruses can cause a cold. The virus particles spread through the air or from hand-to-hand (person-to-person) contact.

The incubation period is short, usually 18-24 hours, and onset is abrupt. Generally, a cold will begin with a scratchy sensation in the throat, sneezing, stuffy or runny nose, watery eyes, low fever, and varying degrees of tiredness. Chilly sensation and mild headache are common. Vague and generalized body aches as well as cough can occur. Resolution of symptoms usually occurs in 4-14 days.

To help prevent colds:

  • wash your hands often and avoid touching your face.
  • use disposable tissues.
  • eat a balanced diet, drink plenty of water, and get adequate rest.
  • avoid contact with people that have a cold and avoid crowded places if possible.
  • do not smoke and stay away from second-hand smoke.
  • keep your stress level down.

Treatment of colds consists of treating the symptoms. Since a cold is viral in origin, antibiotics are not recommended since they may cause reactions that are worse than the cold.

General treatment measures include:

  • use of a cool-mist humidifier to increase air moisture.
  • drink plenty of water, eat well, and get adequate rest.
  • stay away from smoke.
  • avoid alcohol and caffeine.
  • use acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen for pain relief and fever reduction.

For nasal congestion, use a saline nasal spray. You can also use a decongestant such as Sudafed during the day. At night you may try a mild antihistamine such as Dimetane or Chlor-Trimeton as these can cause drowsiness.

For sore throats, gargle with salt water (1/2 to 1 tsp. salt in a glass of warm water), or honey & water (equal parts). Sucking on hard candy or throat lozenges can soothe the throat.

For cough, use a cough suppressant such as Robitussin.

A cold can lead to a more serious secondary bacterial infection. See your health care provider without delay if you:

  • become short of breath,
  • have a fever greater than 100.5 degrees for more than 2 days,
  • begin to cough up yellow secretions,
  • have discolored or bloody mucus from your nose,
  • have painful swelling of the neck glands,
  • develop ear pain or drainage,
  • have a severe headache,
  • have an extremely sore or red throat with white or yellow patches on it,
  • have pain and tenderness around the eyes,
  • develop a skin rash,
  • develop chest pain, or,
  • if your cold does not clear up after 7-10 days.


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