WARE — The common cold is one of the most prevalent illnesses, leading to more doctor visits and absences from school and work than any other illness every year.
This year alone, more than one billion people in the U.S. will suffer from colds caused by more than 200 different viruses that inflame the membranes that line the nose and throat causing a cough, sore throat, nasal congestion, runny nose, and sneezing.
“People are most likely to have colds during fall and winter, starting in late August or early September until March or April,” said Dr. Muhammad Gul, medical director of BMP–Quabbin Adult Medicine. “The increased incidence of colds as the weather gets cooler may be attributed to the fact that more people are indoors and close to each other. Seasonal changes in relative humidity also may affect the prevalence of colds. The most common cold-causing viruses survive better during the cooler months of the year when the relative humidity in the air is lower. Cold weather also may make the inside lining of your nose drier and more vulnerable to viral infection.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, studies have shown that viruses can survive on hard surfaces and can infect a person for up to two to eight hours after being left on items like dining tables, doorknobs, and desks.
“Viruses are spread mainly by droplets made when people who are sick cough, sneeze, or talk,” said Gul. “A person might also become sick after touching a surface or object that has a virus on it and then touching their own mouth or nose. People can be contagious in the 24 hours before their symptoms start.
“They may feel healthy while the virus is incubating and spreading,” he continued. “Colds often are transmitted during this period because people who are infected aren’t staying home, and other people aren’t avoiding them the way they would someone who is coughing or sneezing. So handwashing, regardless if people around you are well or sick, is so important.”
Antimicrobial soap kills bacteria, not the viruses that cause colds. The best protection against colds is to wash your hands often with warm, soapy water. It takes about a minute of washing to remove viruses from your hands.
“While getting chilled or wet is not a cause of common colds, there are factors that make you more susceptible to catching a cold virus,” said Gul. “You are more likely to catch a common cold if you are excessively fatigued, have emotional distress, or have allergies with nose and throat symptoms. There is no cure for the common cold; in most situations cold symptoms will be over within five to 10 days.”
Home treatment for the common cold includes getting rest and drinking plenty of fluids. “Over-the-counter medications such as throat lozenges, throat sprays, cough drops, and cough syrups may help relieve symptoms, though they will not prevent or shorten the duration of the common cold,” said Gul. “It is important to note that over-the-counter medications may cause undesirable side effects; therefore they should be taken with care.”
Many people confuse the common cold with influenza (the flu). Influenza is caused by the influenza virus, while the common cold generally is not. While some of the symptoms of the common cold and influenza may be similar, patients with the common cold typically have a milder illness. Patients with influenza usually appear more ill and have a more abrupt onset of illness with fever, chills, headache, substantial muscle and body aches, cough, and extreme weakness.
“The flu season lasts from October to May, but flu outbreaks can occur any time during the year; flu season commonly peaks in January and February,” said Gul. “We are urging everyone to get the vaccine, particularly people older than 65 because they have the highest mortality rate with the virus.
“If you catch a cold and also have a chronic medical condition such as asthma, heart disease, or diabetes, a cold could cause serious health problems,” he continued. “Talk to your healthcare provider. Laboratory testing and X-rays are generally not necessary unless there are concerns about another underlying medical condition or potential complications.
“If you have symptoms of a cold or the flu and are very sick or worried about your illness,” he added, “contact your health care provider, especially if you have unusually severe cold symptoms, a fever 102 degrees or higher, ear pain, sinus-type headache, cough that gets worse while other cold symptoms improve, or flareup of any chronic lung problem, such as asthma or emphysema.”