The autumn and winter seasons are already upon us and with them, an increasing number of respiratory tract infections. The most common of them is the common cold. Colds occur all throughout the year but are far more common from early fall through late spring. These cases spread easily when people gather in closed environments such schools, work place and at home. Young children average 7 to 8 colds each year. in adults, this number decreases to 2 or 3 cases per year.
The common cold is the most common respiratory tract infection. This infection is produced by any of several hundred types of viruses. The Rhinovirus family of viruses has more than 100 serotypes (different members of the same family) and accounts for roughly 50% of all cases. Other viruses producing this infection are the Coronavirus, Parainfluenza, Influenza and Adenovirus among others.
Any of the previously-mentioned viruses can be spread by direct person to person-to-person contact or via airborne particles. While infection is immediate, a 24 to 72 hour “incubation period” has to lapse in order for the symptoms to develop.
Cold symptoms are non-specific and include one or several of the following: nasal congestion, nasal discharge, loss of sense of smell or taste, fever, general malaise, headache, sore throat and occasionally dry cough, Adults generally only have low-grade fevers, where temperatures are above the normal 98.6°F or 37°C but still below 100.4°F or 38°C. Children are more likely to develop high-grade fevers where temperatures exceed 100.4°F or 38°C.
There is not a specific diagnostic test for the cold and, for this reason, the diagnosis is made clinically.
For the majority of the cases, the cold is a self-limited infection. Symptoms may last anywhere from 5 to 7 days though, sporadically, they can last for up to 2 weeks. The common cold can trigger in affected individuals, an acute exacerbation of an asthmatic attack or chronic bronchitis.
The infection can, once in a while, predispose the infected person to suffer secondary complications such as middle ear infections or sinusitis which can be the result from the virus infection itslef or from a secondary bacterial infection.
The treatment is symptomatic. It is very important to mention that antibiotics do not work in treating the common cold (it is a viral infection).
Medications used to reduce the fever, malaise and headaches are: Tylenol or Tempra, which are brand names for Acetaminophen, and Motrin or Advil, brand names for Ibuprofen. Ibuprofen should not be given to children younger than 6 months of life.
Nasal drops containing oxymetazoline or phenylephrine are commonly used to improve nasal congestion. These drops can be used for 3 to 5 days by school age children and older patients only. Never administer these nasal drops to small children, instead, normal saline drops are useful for this patient group.
In school age children and adults, over-the-counter medications for cough and nasal congestion can offer some help. the FDA warns against the use of these products in children younger than 2 years old due to the side effects of theses products. For children between 2 to 4 years old, these products have to be used under a physician’s supervision only.
Good rest and good hydration are important part of the treatment. Sleeping at a 45° also helps.
Some products like Zinc, Vitamin C and Echinacea had been evaluated as preventive or therapeutic agents for the common cold, but no study has proven these products to be effective.
In order to prevent this infection it is advisable to avoid air irritants such as smoke and fumes and avoid contact with infected persons. Frequent handwashing and the use of surface disinfectants may reduce the spread of the virus in a significant way.