14
February
2012

The common cold: What is it?

Learn about the common cold and how you can avoid it

The common cold is the most frequently occurring medical condition on Earth that affects humans. Tens of thousands of people in every part of the world suffer from this illness every year. The common cold is not a new disease; in fact there is evidence that humans were catching cold viruses as early as the 16thcentury BC.

So what is the common cold?
 
This condition is known in more technical terms as nasopharyngitis, acute coryza or rhinopharyngitis. These terms all refer to what the layperson knows as a common cold, a condition brought about by one of many cold-causing viruses. It is an infectious illness that affects the respiratory system of humans and targets mostly the nose and sinus area.
 
Symptoms of the common cold usually include runny nose, nasal congestion, a mild fever, coughing, sore throat and a headache. These symptoms can last anywhere from five days to two weeks.
 
How is the common cold transmitted?
 
Generally, one catches a common cold by way of coming into direct contact with fluids (mucus, saliva) of an infected person, or by inhaling microscopic droplets that travel through the air when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or sometimes even speaks. When a healthy person touches an infected person or surface, the cold is usually transmitted when the person touches his or her eyes, nose or mouth.
 
Cold-causing viruses can survive for several hours in environments outside of a human host, such as countertops,  keyboards and drinking glasses, making it possible to catch the virus simply by touching one of these surfaces. Schools, especially elementary schools, and childcare centers are common places for children and adults to catch a common cold due to the high number of people in close proximity to one another. The cold virus spreads quickly and easily in environments such as these.
 
Can I catch a cold from being out in the cold?
 
The short and easy answer is, no. Simple exposure to cold weather conditions, no matter how miserable or how prolonged, cannot give you a cold, though this myth is where the condition got its name. What is true, however, is that when your body is in a very cold environment, it devotes more of its energy and resources towards keeping you warm, and less to the immune system, which battles potential infections, like cold-causing viruses.
 
It is also true that colds are more frequent during cold winter months, especially among children. This is a result of a few factors. First, cold causing viruses thrive and survive more readily in dry environments such as homes and schools using air conditioning to heat the spaces. Second, as mentioned above, immune function may be compromised as a result of your body’s efforts to keep you warm in cold weather.
 
Finally, cold weather means more time spent indoors in close quarters with other people, especially in schools and day care centers. This means far more opportunities for virus transmission.
 
Can a common cold be treated?
 
No, the common cold is caused by one of many cold-causing viruses, which cannot be treated with medication. Rather, the symptoms of the common cold can be treated and measures can be taken to help the body fight off the infection.
 
How can I avoid catching a cold?
 
The most important preventative measure you can take is to wash your and your child’s hands constantly. Hand washing is most important after touching your eyes, nose or mouth, using the toilet, spending time in public areas like buses or schools, and before eating. Using all-purpose disinfectants on surfaces like doorknobs, keyboards, countertops, handles and faucet knobs is a good way to keep cold causing germs out of the house or workplace.
 
Especially during cold season, consider using paper towels for drying hands rather than sharing cloth towels. Watch where you and your children are spending time. Any time spent in close quarters with many other people will significantly increase your chances of catching a bug. Airplanes, movie theaters and large school or daycare classes are some of the worst culprits.
 
Potential complications of a cold
 
Especially for people with compromised immune function, there is a risk that a common cold can result in more serious complications or secondary infections. These include, sinus infections (also known as sinusitis), ear infections, bronchitis or asthma attacks. For people who suffer from asthma, emphysema or chronic bronchitis, it is possible to experience residual symptoms of the common cold for weeks or even months after you’ve gotten rid of the cold virus.
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Categories: Cold

Michelle Spatz, Amanda Maynes

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