Understanding the Common Cold
Health and Well Being
October 02, 2018
Understanding the Common Cold
Woman sick on her couch wrapped in a blanket

Colds may be called common, but when you have one, it’s hardly business as usual. While colds aren’t usually dangerous, they can make even the toughest customer totally miserable. This month we’re taking a look at all sides of this illness, from common symptoms to limiting its ability to spread.

The common cold strikes Americans more than one billion times annually and is the leading cause of missed school for children and work for adults. Adults suffer through two to three colds per year and kids experience them even more frequently. Usually caused by rhinoviruses, the first symptoms of colds are often a sore throat and runny nose, followed by coughing, sneezing and watery eyes.

Todd Richwine, D.O., a family medicine specialist and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Southwest Fort Worth and Texas Health Family Care, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice, says cold symptoms often develop gradually.

“Colds typically come on slowly, meaning there is a gradual progression of symptoms, and people go from wondering if they are getting sick to progressing to where they know they are,” he explains. “I often hear patients say they felt normal and then were suddenly sick with the flu, while it is a very gradual progression with the common cold. With colds, typically we see more congestion, sneezing and sore throat. Headaches and fever (at least above 100 degrees) are rare, aches are mild and chills are uncommon.”

Colds occur more often during winter months and are easily spread when people are in close proximity such as at home (among families) and in schools and daycares (between children). Since there is no vaccine to prevent colds, it is crucial to practice good hygiene (hand washing, covering sneezes and coughs) and limit contact with infected people.

People are most contagious during the first few days of a cold and usually cease to be contagious after a week. Symptoms usually begin to show up two to three days after a person has been exposed to a cold-producing virus. While there is no cure for the common cold, a combination of rest and increased fluids can ease symptoms during the seven to 10 days it usually lasts.

Richwine explains that over-the-counter medications aren’t particularly helpful in speeding recovery, but they can be used to help alleviate symptoms.

“Decongestants and mucolytics can help some of the congestion symptoms for colds but beyond that, most other OTCs haven’t been found to help a lot. The best ‘medicine’ hasn’t really changed much, which is to cover coughs and wash your hands frequently to not spread your illness to others, get lots of fluids and plenty of rest, and allow yourself the time to get well.”

Colds may spread easily, but it’s at least worth trying to keep the people around you healthy if you’re the one who is sick.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the following tips can help prevent spreading viruses that cause the common cold:

  • Don’t go to work or school if you are sick.
  • Limit contact with others and avoid shaking hands, hugging and kissing.
  • If you need to cough or sneeze, move away from other people.
  • Don’t cough or sneeze into your hands. If you can use a tissue, cough or sneeze into it and throw it away, or use the upper sleeve of your shirt.
  • After coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based sanitizer.
  • Disinfect commonly used or touched surfaces such as toys, doorknobs, light switches, etc.

Most cold sufferers bounce back from a cold after a week or two but can lead to other complications in some people. Children with asthma who contract a cold are more likely to experience wheezing, and colds can also lead to bronchitis, ear infections, pneumonia and sinusitis.

If you have trouble breathing, your symptoms continue to get worse and/or you’re not getting better after 7-10 days, it’s likely time to see your physician.

Mark Till, M.D., emergency medicine physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Dallas, says to watch for a change in symptoms to signal that it’s more than a cold.

“Colds make us all miserable but if there’s a change in the pattern of your symptoms, you may be dealing with something else,” he explains. “Usually pain with coughing is still just a cold because your muscles are getting overworked. Now if you’re having a fever, are short of breath or start coughing up new stuff, go see the doctor to make sure it’s not pneumonia.”

In need of a primary care physician? Head to TexasHealth.org/Doctors to find the closest physician near you this cold and flu season, and every season. 

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