A runny nose, scratchy throat, and nonstop sneezing, you can’t miss the signs of a cold. But mystery shrouds a lot of other things about it. Why do you seem to get them so often while your best friend stays well? And more importantly, how can you stay healthy this year? Get the lowdown on the all-too-common common cold.
What Is It?
It’s an illness caused by a tiny, living thing called a virus. More than 200 types lead to your misery, but the most common one is the rhinovirus, which is thought to be responsible for at least 50% of colds. Other viruses that can cause colds include coronavirus, respiratory syncytial virus, influenza and parainfluenza.
Colds cause a lot of people to stay home.
How a Common Cold Starts
You can catch it from another person who is infected with the virus. This can happen by direct physical contact with someone who has a cold, or by touching a surface contaminated with their germs like a computer keyboard, doorknob or spoon and then touching your nose or mouth. You can also catch it from infected droplets in the air released by a sneeze or a cough.
A cold begins when a virus attaches to the lining of your nose or throat. Your immune system, the body’s defense against germs sends out white blood cells to attack this invader. Unless you’ve had a run-in with that exact strain of the virus before, the initial attack fails and your body sends in reinforcements. Your nose and throat get inflamed and make a lot of mucus. With so much of your energy directed at fighting the cold virus, you’re left feeling tired and miserable.
One myth that needs to get busted: Getting chilly or wet doesn’t cause you to get sick. But there are things that make you prone to come down with a cold. For example, you’re more likely to catch one if you’re extremely tired, under emotional distress, or have allergies with nose and throat symptoms.
Common Cold Symptoms
When a cold strikes, you may have symptoms like:
- Scratchy or sore throat
- Stuffy nose
- Watery eyes
- Mucus draining from your nose into your throat
When to Call the Doctor About a Cold
Most colds last about 7 to 10 days, but if your symptoms linger, you may need to call the doctor. Sometimes, colds lead to an infection by bacteria in in your lungs, sinuses, or ears. If that happens, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics, which work against bacteria but not against viruses.
What’s the difference between a cold and the flu?
The symptoms of a cold include things like:
Why isn’t there a cold vaccine?
The cold can be caused by nearly 250 different viruses. It’s just too hard for scientists to make a vaccine that protects you against all of them.
Also, from a medical point of view, there’s less need to create a vaccine for colds than other illnesses. Although you feel awful when you have one, they generally come and go without any serious complications. You’re miserable for a few days, then it’s over.
Could cold symptoms actually be allergies?
It’s possible, if you’re sniffling but not achy or feverish.
But it’s often hard to tell the difference because people with allergies and asthma are more likely to get colds. They may already have inflamed and irritated lungs, so they’re less able to fight off a virus.
What’s the best treatment for a cold?
The most important thing you can do is drink a lot of fluids to keep your body hydrated. This will help prevent another infection from setting in.
Avoid drinks with caffeine like coffee, tea, and colas. They may rob your body of fluids. When it comes to food, follow your appetite. If you’re not really hungry, try simple things like white rice or broth.
Chicken soup is comforting, plus the steam helps break up nasal congestion. Ginger seems to settle an upset stomach. A hot toddy may help you sleep, but be careful about drinking alcohol if you also take cold remedies.