Each year, there are over a billion colds in the US. That’s a lot of grumpy people and a lot of tissue! But what is a cold?
What is a Cold?
The term “common cold” refers to an acute illness that causes the following symptoms:
- Nasal congestion
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
I figure you probably knew that, but it’s always good to make sure you define your terms. Additional symptoms may also be present, including:
- Decreased appetite
- Your head feeling like someone filled your nasal and sinus passages with lead while you weren’t watching
Fever tends to not be present in adults, but is common to see in children with colds. The symptoms generally last under a week.
Doctors, of course, have a fancier term for colds, calling them upper respiratory infections. They are the same thing, but it sounds much smarter than saying it’s a cold. At least it’s not a Latin word.
What Causes Colds?
Colds are caused by any of 200+ viruses, with the majority of them being from the rhinovirus family. They call them this because under an electron microscope, the viruses have horns and charge other viruses. OK, that’s not true; the name comes from the Greek word for nose, but that didn’t sound exciting enough so I made it up.
These viruses are highly contagious because a person with the virus will spread it to nearly anything they touch, infecting the next person who touches it. That’s why most colds infect multiple family members.
The Good News
I do have some good news, though: there actually is a cure for the common cold. It’s called time. After a while, your body will fight off cold viruses and cure you nearly 100% of the time. Sorry if that is not a glamorous answer, but there is no real need for a cure. The treatment of these infections doesn’t focus on curing them but instead almost entirely on treating symptoms while your body goes after the infection.
I have some more good news: colds are often good for you. Getting a virus is basically a workout for your immune system, making your body more able to fight off infections in the future. Studies show children who are in daycare centers early in life (basically an “all you can eat virus buffet” for kids) don’t get sick as often later in life. It’s not that I recommend going into the daycare center and licking pacifiers (please don’t!); I just feel that people are to quick to try and “cure” something that does no significant harm.
How to Treat a Cold
So, the focus of treatment is centered on reducing symptoms so you are not as difficult to be around. Here are my tips for what to do if you catch a cold:
- Take Care of Yourself – Get rest and eat right. Your body is working hard to get better; give it all the help you can. You don’t have to lie in bed all day, but don’t stay up to watch Letterman.
- Treat Symptoms – There are a number of choices here:
- Decongestants – these medications open up the nasal passages so you can breathe better. Great. The downside, though, is that the are related to adrenalin, which means that they can raise blood pressure, keep you awake at night, and give you heart palpitations. The most famous of these medications is pseudoephedrine, the chemical found in Sudafed. In general, anything with a “D” at the end (Allegra-D, for example) has a decongestant.
- Cough Suppressants – These (obviously) suppress cough. While there are a few choices available, but the most common one is dextromethorphan. If there is a “DM” at the end of the name, it usually means it has dextromethorphan in it.
- Expectorants – The expectorants loosen up the phlegm so your mucous comes out easier. Guaifenesin is the most common of these, and is the main active ingredient to Robitussin (and is the ingredient that makes it taste sour) and Mucinex.
- Fever/Pain Relievers -- Acetaminophen is the most common of these, and is the safest (as long as you do not exceed the recommended dose). Please understand that other medications may have acetaminophen added to them. Read labels! Ibuprofen and Naproxen (the active ingredient in Aleve) can also treat pain (ibuprofen treats fever too). You can take these, but be aware they can upset the stomach and raise blood pressure (if taken in large amounts).
- Antihistamines – These are present in many cold medications, but they actually aren’t much good for a cold, although they may make it easier to sleep. Check the labels and pick a medication that matches your symptoms.
- Moisturize – Using a humidifier and saline nasal spray can make your mucous easier to blow out of your nose. Keeping things loose will make it less likely for it to turn into a bacterial infection like a sinus or ear infection.
You may have heard of recent recommendations to not use cold medications in young children. That is not because they are dangerous, but because no study has shown they really help children. Without that benefit, even the really small risk these drugs pose is not worth taking. I tell parents not to give them to kids under 2.
What about Zinc? There was a lot of buzz around this metal, as one study showed that sucking on a zinc lozenge decreased the rate of infection with cold viruses. No other study has verified this. Again, it doesn’t hurt to use zinc, but it can put a nasty taste in your mouth.
The same holds for Vitamin C and Echinacea; they don’t hurt you, but there is little evidence they make colds go away faster. The good news, however, is that no matter what you do, colds almost always go away.
Please understand that using medications for a cold does not make it go away quicker or prevent complications. The only reason to treat it is to make you feel better. You need to take this in mind when you use medications that themselves may carry risk.
When Should You Worry About Your Cold?
Sometimes colds can become more significant infections. Ear and sinus infections are the most common of these, and may need antibiotics if they are bad (although they too will clear up without antibiotics). Be careful with young children who develop bad coughs, as there are a few serious viral infections they can get.
In my opinion, it’s never wrong to contact the doctor’s office. If you are worried there may be something more serious going on, go to your doctor. I never mind having someone ask me easy questions. Just don’t push for antibiotics. Giving antibiotics to someone with a virus runs the risk of producing resistant bacteria.
Common Cold Myths
Finally, there are some things you may have heard about that are not true:
- You don’t get a cold by letting your feet get cold, going to bed with wet hair, or going outside without a jacket. No matter how many moms or grandmothers say so, it just isn’t true.
- Starving colds and feeding fevers is dumb advice. Just eat healthy food no matter how you feel.
- Drinking extra fluids doesn’t do more than make you have to pee a lot. Just drink enough to avoid dehydration.
- Green mucous doesn’t mean you need antibiotics. Mucous will eventually turn green in most colds.
- Bronchitis is a term describing inflammation in the airways leading to the lungs. Doctors use this term for people with a loose cough. Most bronchitis is viral, and does not require antibiotics.
Copyright Dr. Rob Lamberts, LLC. The Information in this post is for the use of my patients. Use of this information is intended to be done in conjunction with access to my care. Use outside of that relationship should be done with caution.