What is the Common Cold?
The common cold is an infection of the upper respiratory system caused by a variety of different types of viruses. Though typically harmless, colds can vary in severity and make handling daily tasks difficult and uncomfortable.
How Do Colds and Coughs Differ from the Flu?
One of the most common mistakes people make when self-diagnosing is mistaking a particularly bad cold or cough for a case of the flu. While both colds and the flu are upper respiratory diseases caused by viruses (both are also highly contagious), influenza results from exposure to organisms that are different from those which cause colds to occur. Flu tends to occur alongside high fever, dry cough and painful muscle aches, none of which are characteristic of the common cold.
While colds are generally considered to be low-risk for complications, influenza can lead to pneumonia and even death if left untreated.
Though coughs can result from influenza, or “the flu,” they are a hallmark symptom of the common cold—especially coughs that are wet and productive.
Symptoms of the Common Cold
Most cold symptoms take between 1-3 days to appear once a person has been infected. Unlike the flu (with which symptoms can come on suddenly), cold symptoms tend to occur gradually and do not typically reach the point of being severe.
The first sign of a cold coming on is usually general discomfort, often followed by:
- Sore Throat
- Wet Cough
- Runny Nose
- Sinus Pressure
- Loss of Taste/Smell
- Postnasal Drip
Severe symptoms that require immediate medical attention include:
- Shortness of Breath
- Severe Sore Throat
- Fever Above 101.3 F
- Treating Colds and Coughs
The common cold typically lasts for between 3-7 days before running its course. Unlike bacterial infections, colds and other illnesses caused by viruses cannot be treated effectively with antibiotics. In fact, there is no “cure” for the common cold or the flu. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to reduce the severity (and potentially the duration) of colds and coughs, including the following:
- Rest Up — Sleep is one of the most important factors in beating a cold quickly and effectively. While most people require between 6-8 hours of sleep each night, those who are sick with a cold may find they need 10 or even 12 hours of sleep to feel refreshed the next day.
Stay Hydrated — Excessive buildup of mucus can lead to sinus infections in certain cases. Drinking plenty of water and avoiding beverages containing alcohol or caffeine can help keep mucus flowing and reduce the chances of complications occurring. Warm herbal tea can be both hydrating and soothing to a sore throat.
- Consider OTC Medications — Decongestants, cough medicine and nasal sprays won’t cure a cold, but they can certainly make an illness more bearable. There are plenty of over-the-counter (OTC) medications indicated in treating the common cold, many of which can drastically reduce the severity of certain symptoms.
- Gargle with Warm Salt Water — For those who suffer from a particularly bad sore throat along with their cold, mixing a teaspoon of salt with a small amount of warm water and gargling it can be an excellent way to provide symptomatic relief. Repeat 1-3x daily as needed.
- Eat Well — Proper nutrition is essential for bolstering the immune system when fighting off a virus. Avoid fried, greasy foods and instead stick to lean proteins, roasted vegetables and warming dishes—chicken noodle soup is always a good option!
In some cases, a physician may opt to prescribe antiviral medications to help lessen the severity of symptoms. Though more common with the flu, hydration via IV fluids may also be necessary for those who have lost excess amounts of fluids.
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