Description, causes, prevention, treatment and medicines

Colds are an infection of the upper respiratory tract (nose and throat) caused by a virus.

Cold symptoms usually appear 1-3 days after exposure to the virus and include:

  • nasal congestion (blocked nose);
  • nasal discharge;
  • sneezing;
  • sore throat;
  • coughing;
  • mild fever;
  • headache; and
  • red, watery eyes.

Relief for cold symptoms

There is no cure for the common cold, but treatments can relieve some of the unpleasant symptoms. Antibiotics do not work against viruses and there are currently no antivirals available to treat colds. The following tips may help you to relieve some common cold symptoms.

  • Warm, moist air can help to relieve some cold symptoms, such as coughing and nasal congestion.
  • Drink plenty of fluids. This replenishes the moisture lost during mucus production and makes mucus looser and easier to expel.
  • Rest is recommended. Staying at home will also limit the spread of your cold to other people.
  • Salt water gargle. Dissolve some salt in a glass of water and gargle to relieve a sore throat.
  • Antihistamines may improve runny noses and sneezing.
  • Decongestants provide short-term relief of congestion. Don’t use decongestant nasal sprays or drops for more than a few days, otherwise you may suffer from rebound congestion. (N.B. Children should not use decongestant nasal sprays at any time.)
  • Pain killers, such as paracetamol, aspirin (not for children) and other NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) can relieve aches and pains and reduce fever.
  • Cough suppressants are not usually recommended, because coughing clears debris and secretions from the airways.
  • Use soft tissues for blowing the nose as the area around the nose tends to become sore and irritated. Barrier cream may help protect the skin around the nose.
  • Vitamin C is unlikely to be effective in reducing severity or duration of cold symptoms.
  • Zinc is controversial. Some studies have shown that zinc taken at the onset of cold symptoms can reduce the length of the cold; others have shown no benefit.
  • Echinacea is also of unknown effectiveness.

Remember, it is very important that you know what ingredients are in a cold remedy because of the dangers of duplicating treatment. For example, many contain paracetamol, so if you take more than one product with paracetamol in it, an overdose may occur.

When should you seek medical advice?

You should seek medical advice if:

  • the discharge is from only one nostril;
  • the nasal discharge is smelly;
  • there is a very high temperature and/or the person is feeling unwell;
  • there is earache or facial or sinus pain;
  • the glands are significantly swollen;
  • the cold has lasted more than one week and symptoms are not improving; or
  • the person is a baby, or a child under 7 years old.
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