Colds. They always seem to come at a bad time. They are normally not a dangerous health condition, but they can be a real pain in the neck. Are there ways we can avoid them, or are they just an inevitable part of life? This is a question that people have been asking for a long time. Let’s see if we can shed any light on the subject.
What is the Common Cold?
The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract that is caused by any of over 200 different viruses. Typical areas affected include the nose, throat, bronchial tubes, and sinuses. As the name indicates, it is a very common illness. Statistics tell us that the average adult will get a cold two to four times annually. With children, especially preschoolers, the rate of incidence is even higher. They average eight to ten colds per year. Most people will get about 50 colds in their lifetime.
The good news is that colds are relatively harmless, and will run their course in a week or so, with no lasting effects. The symptoms can be annoying, but providing the patient does not pick up a bacterial infection on the side, or have an immune disorder that makes any infection serious for them, colds are nothing to worry about and will dissipate on their own without any intervention.
What Causes the Common Cold?
The cold is the most common illness found in the human race. It is possible to be infected by any of the 200 or so cold viruses, but the majority of culprits are from the rhinovirus or coronavirus families. Some of the viruses are more active and infectious at different times of the year. Rhinoviruses are the most common because by nature they are highly contagious. Anybody can catch a cold at any time, but there are certain factors that seem to increase your chances.
- Preschoolers and grammar school children statistically get the most cold infections. This is due to several factors. First of all, they are more vulnerable because their immature immune systems have not yet developed a resistance to the cold viruses. As we age, and are exposed to more antigens, we develop partial immunity to certain diseases. The common cold is one such disease. Another reason is that kids spend a lot of time around other kids, so the chances of being infected are greater. Children usually do not practice good hygiene when it comes to cold germs either, so they tend to infect one another easily.
- Seasons play a role as well. “Cold Season” in the United States runs from autumn into spring. The usual explanation for that is the colder, damper weather we generally experience at this time of the year. But weather may not be the only villain here. For one thing, people tend to spend a lot more time indoors during the fall-winter season, and may more easily pass around cold viruses. This season also coincides with the school year, so youngsters are cooped up inside with lots of other kids. This can lead to a very infectious atmosphere. Studies have shown that in tropical parts of the world, where there is no “winter,” colds proliferate more during the rainy season.
- Does cold weather or going outside with wet hair or getting chilled increase our chances of getting a cold? The traditional answer is that these factors have nothing to do with it. I’ve been told that you can run around outside in a bathing suit on a below zero day, and it will not cause you to come down with a cold. The only thing that causes colds is exposure to the virus, and that can happen just as easily if you are sitting inside next to a warm fire. That is the textbook line, but this has always been a controversial subject.
I ran across a very interesting study regarding this debate. At the Common Cold Centre in Wales, 180 healthy volunteers engaged in an experiment. Half of them soaked their bare feet in ice water for 20 minutes, and the other half stayed warm and dry. Within five days, almost 33% of the chilled subjects developed cold symptoms such as runny noses and sore throats. Only 9% of the other group experienced the same symptoms. Is this hard science, or the makings of a Monty Python script? I guess it depends on whom you ask, but never the less, it does highlight some of the controversy surrounding the subject of what “causes” the common cold. If cold temperatures do play a role, there is another theory that might explain why. Some researchers speculate that chilly weather may constrict the blood vessels of the nose, and slow down the white blood cells that are sent by the immune system to fight cold viruses. This may also enable dormant infections to more easily progress into full-fledged colds. Admittedly, this is a fringe theory that many scientists scoff at, but it is just one of many ideas that abound about how to combat the common cold. Maybe it will someday be proven to be true, and we’ll all be walking around with nose warmers on every winter.
- Other factors that may put you at greater risk of developing a cold are related to the immune system. People who are fatigued from lack of sleep, working too much, high levels of stress, poor nutrition, smoking and alcohol use, and other lifestyle choices that may stress the immune system, seem to get more colds. All of these factors make us more susceptible to infections of all kinds, but since common cold viruses are so very prevalent and contagious, we are most often the victims of these antigens.
How Are Cold Viruses Spread?
People infected with a common cold virus are contagious for the first two to four days after the onset of the infection, sometimes even before they exhibit any symptoms. Colds are spread via three main methods:
- Airborne: Many colds are passed around when an infected person sneezes, coughs, or speaks, and tiny droplets of saliva are expelled containing the virus. If another individual breathes these in, the virus may embed itself in their nasal passages. This is why it is so important to cover our mouths when we cough or sneeze, and teach our children to do the same. It is best to use a tissue, promptly dispose of it afterwards, and wash our hands. One idea that might be helpful with children is to teach them to cough or sneeze into the crook of their arm (inside the elbow) if they don’t have a tissue, so that if they forget and touch someone or something with their hands, it won’t spread the germs. That brings us to the next common method of spreading colds.
- Direct contact: This is through the “personal touch,” literally. When a person with a cold touches their watery eyes or runny nose or sneezes on their hand, they can pass on the virus by shaking hands or touching other individuals. If that person then touches their nose or eyes, there’s a good chance they just gave themselves a cold. Teaching ourselves and our kids to keep their hands away from their face, combined with frequent hand washing, is the best way to defeat the direct contact method of transmission.
- Inanimate objects: This involves the same scenario as direct contact, except that instead of touching others, an infected person can touch such things as doorknobs, shopping carts, telephones, water fountains, or toys, and leave cold germs on these objects. The next person that touches these objects has a chance of spreading the infection to himself. Toys in day care centers are suspected of spreading many colds amongst children.
- Once the cold virus has been introduced to the nasal passages or sinuses, it may remain dormant, or it may trigger the release of a chemical called histamine. Histamine stimulates increased blood flow to the infected areas, and the results are congestion and increased mucus production. Voila! Another cold has begun.
What Are the Symptoms of the Common Cold?
Since colds can be caused by so many different viruses, symptoms may vary widely from individual to individual. The list of possible ones includes:
- Scratchy or sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Watery eyes
- Low grade fever (less then 102 F)
- Mild fatigue
- Body aches
- Poor appetite
- Increased sleepiness
What Complications Can Occur From the Common Cold?
The most common complications of a cold are secondary bacterial infections. The presence of a cold makes many folks more susceptible to these companion infections. Here are some of the most likely ones to be encountered:
- Acute ear infections (otitis media) are the most frequently found complications in children with a common cold. This occurs when bacteria infiltrates the eardrum and causes earaches, greenish-yellow discharge from the nose, and possibly a fever lasting more than 72 hours. Colds in general are more serious for kids, and parents should be on the lookout for bacterial infections. Some symptoms to watch for include:
ü Fever over 103 F
ü Unusual sleepiness
ü Abdominal pain
ü Persistent crying
ü Persistent cough
ü Ear pain (infants will often pull at their ears)
- Sinusitis: Colds may often progress into bacterial sinus infections. Symptoms of sinusitis are similar to those of colds, but may be more intense, such as a higher fever, and greater congestion. Patients may also experience facial or dental pain due to inflamed sinuses.
- Strep throat: This can be an especially dangerous complication, as this bacterium can spread to other parts of the body, such as the kidneys, if left unchecked. If strep throat is suspected, the patient should see a doctor and get treated with antibiotics.
- Other possibilities include: pneumonia, croup (in kids), and bronchitis. All of these have the potential of becoming serious, and should be watched carefully.
What Treatments Are Available for the Common Cold?
The truth of the matter is that there is no cure for the common cold. Often the best course of action is to let the illness cycle, and the body will heal itself. Even a low-grade fever may be beneficial, as it is part of the body’s healing process, and a normal response of the immune system. A multi-million dollar industry has sprung up around the common cold, providing every conceivable concoction and combination thereof to fight off the symptoms of colds. Many of these medications do not work effectively, and almost all of them have undesirable side effects. It is best to ride a cold out, get plenty of rest, fluids, and eat a light but nutritious diet while the cold runs its course. As far as bacterial infections that may occur with a cold, most of these will dissipate without any danger as well. Sometimes antibiotics are appropriate, but indiscriminate use of these is not wise. Despite what the drug companies want us to believe, popping a pill every time we get sick is not always the best choice.