What is this? It’s something that has affected humankind throughout history – something that we have tried, without much success, to annihilate for centuries. It is the common cold.
Something to Sneeze At
We’ve all experienced the following symptoms: a head so congested that it feels like it may explode, a nose running like a leaky faucet, frequent sneezing, a sore throat, feeling a chill even in a room heated by a fireplace.
In this age of astounding advances in science and technology, it may be surprising that there is no cure for the common cold. But, in fact, it is no wonder that researchers continue to be baffled. They have discovered about 200 different viruses capable of producing a cold. About half of these cold-causing viruses are of a similar type and are known as rhinoviruses. Other cold-causing viruses are the coronaviruses and adenoviruses.
Typically, the viral infection that causes a cold is localized in the upper respiratory system. That is the portion of the breathing system that extends back from the nostrils and down into the throat (called the pharynx) and the voice box (called the larynx).
Sometimes people use the expressions “head cold” and “chest cold” to distinguish between a cold without a cough and a cold with a cough. These terms are misleading because a simple cold, with or without a cough, involves only the upper respiratory tract.
The Great Debate
Researchers agree that cold viruses cause infection most often when they enter the body through the nose or the tear ducts. Experiments have shown that cold viruses introduced into the mouth cause a cold far less often than similar viruses in the nose or the eyes.
But viruses cannot travel by themselves. They must be carried to a point of entry. They may be shot through the air by a sneeze, a cough, or simply by exhaling, for example. Or they may be transferred from one place to another by direct contact, or touch. Researchers continue to debate which mode of transmission is the prime culprit.
Regardless of the method, any cold virus that finds its way into the body presents a potential threat. Thanks to the body’s elaborate system of defense, most cold viruses that reach the nose or mouth never actually cause a cold. Sticky mucus manufactured by glands inside the lining of the nose may trap invading viruses; or these viruses may be washed into the digestive system where they are killed by stomach acids.
Occasionally, though, a virus gets past our lines of defense. A cold victim does not feel the effects of the attack immediately. The time between the initial infection and the first symptom of a cold is called the incubation period. For a cold, the period is usually two to three days.
The Flu More Than a Cold
Flu, or influenza, is a severe respiratory infection. There is no such thing as intestinal flu. Intestinal, or digestive, symptoms are something else entirely.
While influenza has many characteristics in common with a cold, such as a runny, stuffy nose, sneezing, and sore throat, it is caused by a specific group of viruses, and its impact is usually far more severe than that of a cold. Influenza is associated with a fever, fatigue that may last for several weeks, and chest discomfort that may progress to pneumonia.
Preventing Colds and Flu
As people get older, they get fewer colds. Older children typically contract four or five colds a year, teenagers average three or four, and adults two or three. One reason appears to be natural immunity. The older you get, the better developed your immune system.
Viruses that attack the upper respiratory system usually enter the body through the nose and eyes rather than the mouth. It’s still a good idea to avoid sharing a glass or fork with an infected person. You may, in fact, pick up the virus from touching surfaces the cold sufferer has touched.
Cold viruses have been proved to survive for several hours. A tissue used once and thrown away disposes of the viruses immediately and reduces the chance of spreading the infection.
The best way not to catch a cold or the flu is to keep away from the viruses that cause the illnesses. It is virtually impossible to avoid all viruses all the time, but you can reduce your chances of catching an infection by shunning crowded places like elevators, day care centers, and waiting rooms – all of which are prime areas in which viral infections spread.
Where to Go for Relief
The body can usually fight off most colds and flu infections without medical assistance. Some prescribed medications, however, may help. For relief of some symptoms, you can buy over-the-counter (OTC) drugs without a prescription.
Nasal decongestants may be effective in some cases. When using decongestant sprays, however, it is extremely important to follow the directions on the label. If used properly, these OTC drugs can produce dramatic, quick relief. But if overused, they can produce a “rebound effect” leading to more congestion.
Consumer review panels have not found value in the use of antihistamines for cold or flu sufferers. Antihistamines, though, do relieve the coldlike symptoms caused by allergies, such as the runny nose, itchy eyes, and the sneezing hay fever causes.
A productive cough brings up quantities of mucus and aids in its removal. This is good. Productive coughs should not be suppressed with cough suppressant, or antitussive, medication. A person with a non-productive cough, a muscular reflex by which little mucus is produced, may want to use an antitussive. Suppressing the cough may, for example, allow a full night’s sleep.
If a secondary infection develops, a doctor should be seen. Symptoms of a secondary infection may be an earache, a lingering cough, or a fever or sore throat that lasts for more than several days.
In most cases when a cold or flu virus hits, the best course of action is to rest, drink plenty of fluids, use OTC medication as needed – and have lots of patience.