Common colds: symptoms, treatments, prevention

Common colds: symptoms, treatments, prevention

The common cold is a viral infectious disease that infects the upper respiratory system. It is also known as acute viral rhinopharyngitis, or acute coryza. Being the most common infectious disease in humans, the cold is mainly caused by coronaviruses or rhinoviruses.

The human body can never build up resistance to all the viruses that can cause the common cold. It is for this reason that colds are so common and recurring. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) kindergarten children get an average of 12 colds per year, compared to adolescents and adults who catch about seven per year.

Experts say that going out when it is cold does not have any effect on the risk of catching a cold or spreading one. In addition, antibiotics do not cure a cold or speed up recovery.

You will also see introductions at the end of some sections to any recent developments that have been covered by's news stories. Also look out for links to information about related conditions.

Here are some key points about colds. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.

  • Common cold symptoms include dry throat, blocked nose and sneezing.
  • Around a quarter of people do not experience symptoms when infected with a cold.
  • More than 200 viruses can cause a common cold.
  • Up to half of common colds are caused by a type of virus referred to as rhinoviruses.
  • Complications of the common cold include acute bronchitis and pneumonia.
  • People with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are more than vulnerable to colds than other people.
  • Common colds typically last for up to 10 days.
  • Common colds share many symptoms with flu.

Symptoms of a cold

A symptom is something the patient feels or reports, while a sign is something other people, including a doctor may detect. Pain could be an example of a symptom, while a rash could be a sign.

The body reacting to the cold virus is mainly what brings about the symptoms that you feel. A release of chemicals is triggered, making the blood vessels leak, causing the mucous glands to work harder.

If you're suffering with a cold, it is important to get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids

The most common symptoms of a cold are:

  • Dry throat
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Mild fever
  • Sneezing
  • Hoarse voice
  • Blocked nose
  • Mild headache.
Rarer symptoms of a cold include:
  • Muscle aches
  • Shivering
  • Pink eye
  • Weakness
  • Reduction in appetite
  • Extreme exhaustion.

Approximately 25% of people do not suffer any symptoms when infected with the cold virus; perhaps because their immune system reacts differently to the virus. Sometimes bacteria can infect the ears or sinuses - this is known as a secondary bacterial infection - and can be treated with antibiotics.

Causes of a cold

The common cold can be caused by more than 200 different viruses. Up to 50% of colds are caused by rhinoviruses, other cold-causing viruses include:

  • Human parainfluenza virus
  • Metapneumovirus
  • Coronavriuses adenovirus
  • Human respiratory syncytial virus
  • Enteroviruses.

When a virus manages to overpower the body's immune system, infection occurs. The first line of defense is mucus, which is produced in the nose and throat by the mucus glands. This mucus traps anything inhaled, such as dust, viruses and bacteria. Mucus is a slippery fluid that the membranes of the nose, mouth, throat and vagina produce.

When the mucus is penetrated by the virus, which then enters a cell, the virus takes control of the element of the cell which makes protein. It uses this element to manufacture more viruses, these viruses then attack surrounding cells.

Complications of the common cold

Being infected with the common cold can lead to the following complications:

Acute Bronchitis

This is caused when the bronchi in the lungs are inflamed as a result of either a bacterial or viral infection. Antibiotics can only be used to treat this if the infection is bacterial; if it is viral it is common just to treat the symptoms until the infection goes away with time. A sample of the sputum may be taken and examined under a microscope to determine what the levels of bacteria are. Symptoms include wheezing, shortness of breath, coughing and sputum.


Again this is a condition where the lungs are inflamed, but this time is due to the alveoli filling with fluid. Pneumonia can be caused by bacteria or viruses. However, the common cold virus does not cause pneumonia. If pneumonia occurred as a complication of a cold the most likely pathogen would be bacterial. The patient will be prescribed antibiotics. Symptoms include chest pain, cough, an elevated body temperature, and breathing difficulties.

Acute Bacterial Sinusitis

This is when bacteria infect the paranasal sinuses. Nasal and oral decongestants can be used as treatment; however antibiotics are required both to treat the condition and to prevent further infection which could lead to other conditions such as bacterial meningitis. Symptoms include headache, aching of the sinuses and nasal discharge.

Other complications that the common cold can lead to include:

  • Bronchiolitis
  • Croup
  • Otitis media
  • Strep throat.

People with the following conditions can be vulnerable to the common cold and should take measures to avoid catching it as it can worsen their condition:

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) - This includes both emphysema and chronic bronchitis. The Common Cold can exacerbate emphysema or chronic bronchitis symptoms, leading to increased coughing and shortness of breath. Sometimes a bacterial infection can occur which can lead to fever, and the patient will be prescribed antibiotics.
  • Asthma - Asthma attacks can be caused by a cold, especially in children.

On the next page, we look at how to prevent getting colds, how to treat symptoms of the common cold and the differences between a cold and flu.

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Zinc? Vitamin C? Cold-FX? What actually works for treating a common cold (Video Medical And Professional 2020).

Section Issues On Medicine: Disease