Introduction

Photo of someone washing their hands (PantherMedia / subbotina)

Common colds, or simply “colds,” are usually quite harmless and go away again on their own. Symptoms of a cold such as a cough, sore throat and a runny nose can be really annoying. A severe cold can make you feel weak and ill, too.

Colds usually go away on their own after about a week, but some symptoms may last longer. Although a sore throat or a stuffy nose may be gone after just a few days, it can sometimes take up to three weeks for a cough to disappear completely.

Treatment with medication usually isn’t necessary. Some medications may, at best, help relieve the symptoms a bit. Because colds are typically caused by viruses, it also doesn't make sense to use antibiotics to treat an ordinary cold. Antibiotics only work against bacteria.

Symptoms

The term “common cold” covers different symptoms caused by an infection of the upper airways. A cold usually takes a few days to fully develop. Typical symptoms include a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, coughing and a sore throat. Sometimes a cold is also accompanied by a mild fever, weakness, a headache and aching joints.

Colds are occasionally mistaken for the flu. But flu symptoms are usually much worse. They're caused by very different virus types and are not as common as colds. Also, the flu doesn't develop gradually. Instead, it usually starts very suddenly with a high fever, chills, and aching muscles and joints.

Prevalence

Colds are very common, especially in children. It's quite normal for children to catch six to ten colds per year – at school, daycare or kindergarten. Adults have two to four colds a year on average, mostly during the colder season.

Outlook

Colds often start with a sore throat, usually soon followed by a runny or stuffed nose. Even though colds can make you feel really ill, your immune system can usually take care of colds on its own.

The worst is usually over within a week. But it can take a little longer for the symptoms to go away completely. Coughs in particular can be stubborn. Adults need 18 days on average to completely recover from a cough, and it can take up to three weeks in children too.

Effects

Colds are usually harmless and clear up without any serious consequences. But bacteria can sometimes spread through the airways after a viral infection, and they may cause more severe problems in different places, such as in the sinuses. An infection in your voice box (larynx) can cause you to lose your voice. In babies, infants and toddlers, colds sometimes spread to the ear and cause a middle ear infection. Bacterial infections in the throat can cause a sore throat or tonsillitis.

Infections of the upper airways only very rarely cause serious complications like pneumonia. It's a good idea to see a doctor if you have high fever, severe or worsening symptoms, chest pain, shortness of breath or trouble breathing. This is especially important for people who have a chronic disease of the airways, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

 Illustration: Illustration of upper and lower airways – as described in the article

Prevention

There are very many different types of cold viruses. That's why you're not protected against further colds once you have recovered. Your immune system needs to learn how to fight each new virus. This also means that it's not possible to vaccinate against colds.

The best way to prevent colds is to avoid catching them in the first place. Cold viruses are spread through small drops of liquid: When someone with a cold sneezes or coughs, a lot of tiny virus-containing drops are sprayed into the air, and they come to rest on objects like doorknobs, computer keyboards or hand grips and poles on the subway. If you touch these objects, the viruses may transfer to your hands. Touching your face with your hands could then easily spread the viruses to your nose or mouth. So avoiding touching your face with your hands is one way to reduce your risk of catching a cold. Washing your hands frequently with regular soap is another very good way of protecting yourself from colds.

Cold viruses are also spread through everything that has touched the nose or mouth of a person with a cold. This includes cups or glasses that the person might have used to drink out of, and of course used tissues as well. So it’s important to throw tissues away immediately after use, and avoid leaving them lying around.

Vitamin C or echinacea products are sometimes recommended for the prevention of colds. Some people start taking these products a few weeks before the start of the cold season. But they offer very limited protection.

Research summaries

Treatment

Because there are so many different cold viruses, there is currently no medicine that can fight all cold viruses and shorten the length of colds. But various medications can relieve some of the symptoms a little. These include painkillers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen (paracetamol), as well as decongestant (anti-swelling) nasal sprays for temporary use.

Antibiotics are usually not effective against colds and, because of their possible side effects, should only be used if there are complications. Products that contain zinc, vitamin C, or echinacea extracts are also commonly recommended for the treatment of colds. It's not currently possible to reliably evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of these herbal products because there has been little research in this area, and the studies that have been done have produced contradictory results. Herbal products like extracts taken from Pelargonium (umckaloabo), primrose, thyme, eucalyptus and ivy may possibly be able to relieve a cough somewhat.

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