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What is a cold?

A cold is a minor viral infection of the upper respiratory tract (nose and throat). There are about 200 different viruses that can cause a cold. Symptoms can include a scratchy or sore throat, sneezing, clear nasal discharge, stuffy nose, watery eyes, achiness, coughing and a general tired feeling.

How does someone catch a cold?

If the cold virus comes in contact with the mucus membranes of your eyes, nose or mouth, and if your body does not fight off the infection, you will develop symptoms of a cold.

The virus is not spread primarily through airborne contact (i.e. inhaling the virus from the coughing or sneezing of someone around you). Instead, it is spread most often through hand-to-hand contact. If you touch the hand of an infected person and then touch your eyes or nose, you are likely to infect yourself. This can also happen when you touch a surface such as a doorknob or telephone soon after an infected person has touched it.

How can I keep from getting a cold? 

Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly (lots of soap and at least 15 seconds of rubbing your hands under hot running water) and avoid touching your face. This greatly reduces the risk of transmitting the virus from your hands to your eyes, nose or mouth. You do not need to use antibacterial soaps; regular soap and water removes the virus. 

  • If you share equipment such as telephones and keyboards, wipe them off with rubbing alcohol between users. 
  • Prevent infection with adequate rest, healthy food, regular moderate exercise, plenty of non-alcoholic liquids. 
  • Avoid crowded areas with poor ventilation. 
  • Quit smoking and avoid second-hand cigarette smoke, which irritates the mucus membranes.

If I do get a cold, how do I treat it?

First, take note: The cold is a viral infection. Viral infections do not respond to antibiotics. So, no matter how miserable you feel, do not attempt to treat a cold with antibiotics. Only if a bacterial infection is present will your clinician consider antibiotic treatment. 

  • Get lots of rest. 
  • Stay hydrated by taking in plenty of fluids. Avoid caffeine and alcohol, which actually increase dehydration.
  • Eat healthy foods, but don't force yourself to eat. Even if you are not eating much, remember to keep drinking. 
  • Take a pain reliever, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to relieve aches or fever. 
  • Gargling with warm salt water can help reduce swelling in the throat (a teaspoon of salt in a large glass of water). Tea with honey and lemon is also a good throat soother.
  • Inhaling warm moist air humidifies the nasal sinuses and usually helps to relieve congestion. 
  • Saline nasal sprays also help reduce congestion and can help prevent sinus infections. 
  • Chicken soup or other hot liquids help relieve nasal congestion. 
  • Avoid multi-symptom cold remedies which tend to be less effective (and more expensive!) that those intended for individual symptoms.

Should I call my clinician?

Colds are usually self-limiting and do not need medical intervention. However, if symptoms have not improved in a week, or if you are experiencing and of the following, you should contact your clinician, as you may have developed a more serious infection:

  • sinus pain
  • shortness of breath or painful breathing
  • a sore throat that does not improve after two days
  • pain around the neck glands
  • discolored or bloody discharge from the nose or throat
  • persistent or worsening cough
  • severe headache
  • a fever over 100 degrees for more that two days.

(Source: Yale Cold Care Center, Yale University Health Services)

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