All the Information You Need to Know About Colds

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The common cold is a viral infection that affects the upper respiratory tract. The most common cause is a rhinovirus, and the most common symptoms are a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, and a scratchy, sore throat.

The first signs of the common cold are fairly obvious: a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, and a scratchy, sore throat. Most people quickly recognize these early symptoms because the common cold is so ordinary. In fact, adults have an average of 2 to 3 colds per year.

The common cold is actually a viral infection in your upper respiratory tract. A cold can be caused by more than 200 viruses. The most common are rhinoviruses.

These viruses are easily spread from person to person or surface to surface. Many of these viruses can live on surfaces for hours, even days.

While the common cold may indeed be familiar, there are some things to know about this ailment that can help you feel better, avoid future colds, or even prevent the spread of the virus to other people.

What are the symptoms of a cold?
Once you‘re exposed to a cold-causing virus, cold symptoms typically take 1 to 3 days to appear. The symptoms of a cold rarely appear suddenly.

Nasal symptoms include:
congestion
sinus pressure
runny nose
stuffy nose
loss of smell or taste
sneezing
watery nasal secretions
postnasal drip or drainage in the back of your throat

Head symptoms include:
watery eyes
headache
sore throat
cough
swollen lymph nodes

Whole body symptoms include:
fatigue or general tiredness
chills
body aches
low grade fever below 102°F (38.9°C)
chest discomfort
difficulty breathing deeply

Symptoms of a cold typically last for 7 to 10 days. Symptoms tend to peak around day 5 and gradually improve.

However, if your symptoms worsen after a week or haven’t disappeared after about 10 days, you may have another condition, and it may be time to see a doctor.

What’s the difference between a cold and the flu?
The common cold and the flu may seem very similar at first. They are indeed both respiratory illnesses and can cause similar symptoms. However, different viruses cause these two conditions, and your symptoms will help you differentiate between the two.

Knowing the difference between cold and flu symptoms can help you decide how to treat your condition — and whether you need to see a doctor.
As a rule, flu symptoms are more severe than cold symptoms.

Another distinct difference between the two is how serious they are. Colds rarely cause additional health conditions or problems. The flu, however, can lead to complications like:

Diagnosing a cold
Diagnosing an uncomplicated cold rarely requires a trip to your doctor’s office. Recognizing the symptoms of a cold is often all you need in order to figure out your diagnosis.

Of course, if your symptoms worsen or last longer than 10 days, make an appointment with a doctor. You could actually be dealing with a different health condition, which your doctor will be able to diagnose.

If you have a cold, you can expect the virus to work its way out of your system in about 7 to 10 days.

If your doctor diagnoses a cold, you’ll likely only need to treat your symptoms until the virus has had a chance to run its course. These treatments can include using over-the-counter (OTC) cold medications, staying hydrated, and getting plenty of rest.

If you have the flu, the virus may take the same amount of time as a cold to fully disappear. But if you notice your symptoms are getting worse after day 5, or if you don’t start feeling better after a week, it’s a good idea to follow up with your doctor, as you may have developed another condition.

If you have the flu, you may benefit from taking an antiviral flu medication early in the virus’ cycle. Rest and hydration are also very beneficial for people with the flu. Much like the common cold, the flu just needs time to work its way through your body.

Treatment for adults
The common cold is a viral infection in your upper respiratory tract. Viruses cannot be treated with antibiotics. In most cases, viruses like the cold just need to run their course. You can treat the symptoms of the infection, but you can’t actually treat the infection itself.

Cold treatments generally fall into two main categories: over-the-counter (OTC) medications and home remedies.

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications
The most common OTC medications used for colds include:
Decongestants. Decongestant medications help ease nasal congestion and stuffiness.
Antihistamines. Antihistamines help prevent sneezing and also ease runny nose symptoms.
Pain relievers. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and aspirin can help ease body aches, inflammation, and fever symptoms.
Common cold medications sometimes include a combination of these medications. If you’re using one, be sure to read the label and understand what you’re taking so you don’t accidentally take more than you should of any one class of drug.

The most common side effects from OTC cold medications include:
If you’ve previously received a diagnosis of high blood pressure, you should consult your doctor before using any OTC cold medications.
Certain medications help relieve symptoms by narrowing blood vessels and reducing blood flow. If you have high blood pressure, this may affect blood flow throughout your body.

Home remedies
Like OTC cold remedies, home remedies for the common cold don’t cure or treat a cold. Instead, they can help make your symptoms less severe and easier to manage.

The most effective and common home remedies for a cold include:
Gargling with salt water. A salt water gargle can help coat your throat and ease irritation.
Drinking plenty of fluids. Staying well hydrated helps you replace fluids you’ve lost while also helping relieve congestion.
Using vapor rub. Vapor rub topical ointments help open your airways and ease congestion.
Getting lots of rest. Getting plenty of rest helps your body save energy to let the virus run its course.
Zinc lozenges. Zinc lozenges may reduce how long cold symptoms last if they’re taken at the very start of your symptoms.
Echinacea. According to research, echinacea may be effective at reducing the duration of a cold in some cases.

Treatment for children
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)Trusted Source doesn’t recommend OTC medications for cough and cold symptoms in children younger than 2 because these medications could cause serious and potentially life threatening side effects. Manufacturers voluntarily label these cough and cold products: “Do not use in children under 4 years of age.“

You may be able to help ease a child’s cold symptoms with these home remedies:
Rest. Children who have a cold may be more tired and irritable than normal. If possible, let them stay home from school and rest until the cold has cleared.

Hydration. It’s very important that children with a cold get plenty of fluids. Colds can dehydrate them quickly. Make sure they’re drinking regularly. Water is great. Warm drinks like tea can pull double duty as a sore throat soother.

Food. Kids with a cold may not feel as hungry as usual, so look for ways to give them calories and fluids. Smoothies and soups are two good options.

Salt water gargles. Salt water gargles aren’t the most pleasant experience, but gargling with warm, salty water can help soothe sore throats. Saline nasal sprays can also help clear nasal congestion.
Warm baths. A warm bath may help ease mild aches and pains that are common with a cold.
A cool mist humidifier. A cool mist humidifier can help decrease  nasal congestion. Don’t use a warm mist humidifier, as it can cause swelling in the nasal passages, making it more difficult to breathe.

Bulb syringe. Nasal suctioning with a bulb syringe works well to clear babies‘ nasal passages. Older children typically resist bulb syringes.

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