Though my grandmother was better than I will ever be at telling someone's temperature from the back of her hand on a forehead, there were some things about the common cold that she didn't get right. She was certain, for example, that you got a cold from being out in cold weather. We now know that this is not true.
The common cold is actually a syndrome caused by hundreds of viruses, though the most common type is called the rhinovirus. A cold generally begins with a mild sore throat, followed by nasal stuffiness and drainage over the next couple of days, and eventually a mild cough. Symptoms frequently last more than a week; it is uncommon to have any significant fever with a cold. The average adult gets two or more colds per year, with kids getting even more.
Unfortunately, we haven't made much progress fighting the common cold, but we do know how to minimize our chances of getting it.
How Colds Spread
Most commonly, a cold virus is passed from person to person on the hands. A patient with a cold might shake hands with a friend, and that friend then transfers the virus to his nose or eyes by scratching. Colds also pass when we sneeze large droplets on others. Less commonly, they pass via smaller droplets suspended in the air.
Good hand hygiene is crucial to escaping the common cold. Wash your hands with soap and water frequently, particularly after contact with others. Alcohol hand gels are good substitutes for soap and water if a sink is not available. If you can't clean your hands after exposure, try to avoid touching your hands to your face, particularly the eyes and nose until you can wash them.
If you're sick, do others a favor and cover your coughs and sneezes and avoid contact.
Got a Cold ... Now what?
Treat your symptoms. Drink plenty of fluids, including Grandma's chicken soup. And take decongestants such as pseudoephedrine. Rest may also soothe some of the symptoms. That's one good reason to stay at home when you're sick--another is you won't infect anyone else.
It should be pointed out that vitamins have not been shown to decrease or prevent colds in normal circumstances. A few studies have shown zinc lozenges can benefit cold symptoms, but these results are controversial. The FDA has warned against the use of some of these preparations due to associated loss of sense of smell.
Avoid taking antibiotics for a simple cold. They won't help against the viruses that cause colds, and antibiotics can have important side effects and medication interactions. Remember, statistics show we can sometimes talk our doctors into giving antibiotics if we ask. These medicines can lose their effectiveness when used too frequently over time--so save them for bacterial infections.
A Cold Is Not the Flu.
Influenza is usually a much more severe illness characterized by sudden onset of fevers, headache, cough and sometimes severe muscle aches. The flu is responsible for thousands of deaths every year, which is why you should get a flu shot annually (last year's won't protect you against this year's flu bug).
Unlike the common cold, there are several medications that treat the flu effectively. If you have the sudden onset of an illness consistent with the flu, consult your doctor immediately. Antiviral medication must be given within 48 hours of symptom onset to be effective.