Your head hurts, you can’t stop blowing your nose, your cough makes you want to swear like a sailor . . . you have a cold. Far less glamorous than the flashy flu (rarely do you hear of cold-related deaths or colds connected to birds), the common cold is exactly that—common. It’s pretty much the most common illness known to humankind, which doesn’t make it suck any less. No need to mince words when you feel like crap—here’s the straight stuff on the sniffles.
In the course of just one year, Americans will collectively suffer a billion colds. These colds are a leading cause of doctor visits and missed days from work and school—according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 22 million school days are missed every year in the US due to the little ol’ cold. Children get about six to 12 colds a year, mostly because they are in close contact with each other in daycare centers and schools and those youngsters aren’t exactly hyper-vigilant about the hygiene (yes, your toddler likes to suck on the drinking fountain). Adults average about two to four colds a year, although the range can go much higher.
According the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the rate of colds increases slowly for a few weeks starting in late August or early September, and remains high until March or April. Contrary to popular myth, however, you can’t get a cold just by being out in the cold, having damp hair, etc. These conditions can lower your immunity and that might make you more susceptible, but you still have to inhale the nasty little viruses that lead to colds. Cold germs are spread when we touch surfaces that contain them and then touch our eyes or nose. As vile as it sounds, we can also inhale drops of mucus full of cold germs from the air, as when someone near you sneezes. The NIH postulates that the fall/winter cold crescendo might have more to do with the opening of schools and to the fact that chilly weather makes people spend more time indoors where they can touch and breathe all over each other.
There are more than 200 different viruses known to cause the common cold. Some, such as parainfluenza and respiratory syncytial virus, produce mild infections in adults but can cause severe lower respiratory infections in young children; however, these are rarer than the rhinoviruses, which seldom produce serious illnesses. Cold symptoms usually appear two or three days after infection and can include mucus buildup, swollen sinuses, sneezing, sore throat, cough and headache. Fevers are rare. Symptoms can last anywhere from two to 14 days, but most people usually recover in about a week.
There’s no cure for the common cold, but you can get relief from your symptoms by resting, drinking lots of fluids, gargling with warm salt water or using throat sprays or lozenges, using petroleum jelly for a raw nose or taking aspirin or acetaminophen for headaches or fevers. Nonprescription decongestants, cough suppressants and antihistamines may relieve some of your symptoms but will not prevent or even shorten the length of your cold.
Do not take antibiotics to treat a cold (unless prescribed by a doctor for a related, concurrent bacterial infection) because they won’t kill cold viruses in the first place, and over/misuse of antibiotics is leading to new, drug-resistant diseases.
The simplest and most effective way to keep from getting colds is to wash your hands with soap and water. And, as a two-fer, this practice doubles as a great way to avoid hepatitis.