By Yolanda Smith, BPharm
The common cold, also known as rhinopharyngitis, is a type of respiratory tract infection caused by a virus.
It is an extremely contagious infection that can be passed on through human contact, making it the most common infectious disease to affect humans. However, it is usually self-limiting and symptoms resolve without serious complications.
On average, adults have approximately three respiratory infections each year, but children are more commonly affected with up to 12 cold a year for children attending school. There is a higher incidence of colds in autumn (fall) and winter, as it is a season infection, although people may be affected at any time throughout the year.
People affected by the common cold usually experience symptoms such as:
- Sore throat
- Runny nose
- Nasal congestion
- Minor muscle aches
- Shivering/mild fever
Symptoms usually persist for approximately one week, although young children under five years of age and the elderly may take longer to recover, with symptoms evident for up to two weeks.
Causes and Prevention
The common cold is usually caused by a rhinovirus that is transmitted through contact with the saliva of nasal secretions of someone already infected by the virus. Sneezing or coughing and cause the virus to spread and contaminate surface that may pass the infection to other people.
As a result of the easy transmission of the viruses that cause the common cold, it is essential that an effort be made to prevent the infection from passing on to other people.
Regular hand washing is recommended and people should be advised to avoid touching their facial features as much as possible. The mechanical action of hand washing is the most important aspect of washing, as most soap and anti-bacterial washes have little effect on rhinoviruses.
Additionally, people who are affected by the common cold should avoid passing on the virus to other people. This includes sneezing or coughing away from other people and disposing of infected items, such as tissues.
As the common cold is caused by many different virus strains, it is not possible to immunize against the common cold. Each virus requires unique targeted antibodies to be prevented and it is not feasible to include all antibodies in an immunization for the common cold.
The common cold is self-limiting and in the vast majority of cases will resolve spontaneously after about a week. However, the symptoms may be quite debilitating and many people seek symptomatic treatment to manage the infection.
Patients should be advised to allow their body to rest and fight the infection, while keeping their fluid intake high. Antibiotics only target bacteria and cannot successfully eradicate viruses. As a result, their use in a viral respiratory infection is futile and should not be used.
Analgesics such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen can provide immediate relief of symptoms like headache, muscles aches and fever. These are widely recommended and used in the management of the common cold and help to decrease severity of these symptoms. Nasal decongestants also offer a tangible benefit for symptoms of congestion in the nose and associated headache.
Additionally, some natural compounds have been found to help in the management of upper respiratory tract infections. This includes Vitamin C, which is able to decrease the duration of a cold when taken in relatively high doses upon onset of symptoms. Likewise, intake of zinc has been linked to a shortening of duration of symptoms.
In most cases, people suffering from a common cold should be advised that their symptoms will resolve eventually and that they should rest in the meantime while their body fights the infection.
Last Updated: May 21, 2015