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The Common Cold - Frequently Asked Questions About The Common Cold

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Updated June 20, 2009

Question: What causes the common cold?
Answer: The common cold is caused by more than 200 different viruses. Due to the fact that so many different viruses are out there, it seems like we don't gain immunity to the common cold. However, we usually only become infected by the same virus once. Among the various viruses, the following predominate as causes:

  • rhinovirus - 30 percent to 35 percent of cases
  • coronavirus
  • respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
  • adenoviruses
  • coxsackieviruses
  • echoviruses
  • orthomyxoviruses - influenza A and B viruses belong to this group
  • paramyxoviruses - several parainfluenza viruses belong to this group
  • enteroviruses

Question: My mom said that going outside without my coat or with wet hair will cause me to catch a cold. Is this true?
Answer: No, these are old wives tales and are not causes of the common cold. However, increased levels of physical stress can inhibit the immune system, making you more susceptible to the common cold that you have been exposed to.

Question: What are the signs and symptoms of the common cold?
Answer:

  • rhinorrhea (runny nose)
  • nasal congestion - most common symptom in children
  • sneezing
  • sore or scratchy throat
  • cough
  • low-grade fever

Question: How contagious is the common cold and how is transmitted?
Answer: The common cold is contagious from a few days to a couple weeks. Transmission can occur from direct contact by touching objects like a telephone that is contaminated with the virus or by inhaling coughed or sneezed droplets in the air. Kissing in and of itself is not a method of transmission, as saliva is not a common source of transmission for viruses.

Question: What can I do to prevent getting a cold?
Answer:

  • Wash your hands for 15 to 30 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand rub
  • Encourage others to cover the mouth with their sleeve when coughing or sneezing
  • Avoid touching your eyes, mouth, or nose
  • Keep children's toys separate or wash the toys after use

Question: Will zinc, echinacea, and vitamin C help me get over my cold?
Answer: Several studies have been done on this topic, but there has not been enough evidence to support these as treatments for the common cold.

Question: What treatments are available for colds?
Answer: Since colds are most commonly caused by viruses, antibiotics are ineffective as a treatment. Treatment is usually based solely on the symptoms of the cold and not the causative virus. It is also important to remember to drink a lot of fluid to stay hydrated. Common treatments of symptoms include:

  • rhinorrhea/nasal congestion
    • saline drops
    • pseudoephedrine
    • diphenhydramine
    • ipratropium bromide
    • cromolyn sodium
  • sore throat\fever
    • sucking on hard candy or cough drop
    • acetaminophen
    • ibuprofen
    • naproxen
  • cough
    • cough suppressants do not have enough clinical support to warrant use in treatment of the common cold

Question: Can I use aspirin to treat my child's cold?
Answer: NEVER use aspirin to treat your child's cold. A rare but fatal complication known as Reye's Syndrome can result.

Sources:

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. Common Cold. Accessed: February 1, 2009. http://www3.niaid.nih.gov/topics/commonCold/

Nemours Foundation. Common Cold. Accessed: February 1, 2009. http://kidshealth.org/parent/infections/bacterial_viral/cold.html

Sexton, D.J. & Friedman, N.D. Patient information: The common cold in adults. www.uptodate.com August, 2006.

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