Common cold

Description, causes, prevention, treatment and medicines

What is the common cold?

The common cold is an infection, mainly of the nose and throat, which is caused by a virus. It usually lasts about a week and should not cause serious illness in otherwise healthy people.

How is it contracted?

A number of different viruses cause the common cold, but the rhinovirus is the most common cause. The virus, which is very infectious, is spread from person to person by the fine spray shot from the nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze. It can also be transmitted by close contact, e.g. shaking hands with someone who has a cold.

What are the symptoms?

You will usually have a runny nose and weepy eyes. You may cough, sneeze, have a sore throat and feel generally off-colour. Some people also have headaches or fever or lose their voice.

Treating the common cold

  • Resting helps your body fight off the cold.
  • Drinking plenty of fluid (water or diluted juice) stops you getting dehydrated, so your mucus is loose and easier to cough or blow out. Avoid or minimise drinking tea, coffee or alcohol, which may dry you out even more.
  • Taking medicines may help to bring down a fever and relieve headaches. However, you should always check with your pharmacist or doctor before taking certain cold medicines if you are diabetic or have high blood pressure. Also, never give aspirin to children.
  • Saline nasal sprays or washes can help unblock the nose and clear the back of the throat. Nasal drops may be needed if a baby has a blocked nose and can’t suck or feed. Your doctor or pharmacist will tell you what’s best and how to use it.
  • Decongestants, available as tablets, mixtures and nasal sprays and drops, may be helpful for some adults. They should only be used for a few days, and they should not be used if you have certain conditions (such as heart problems). They are unlikely to be effective in children under 12 years of age.
  • Cough medicines are not effective at treating the underlying cause of a cough due to colds, and coughing is the body’s way of getting rid of mucus. Some mixtures may help in the short term if your cough is dry and annoying, but they are not recommended at all for young children. Follow directions carefully.
  • Antibiotics are not given for colds because colds are caused by viruses. Antibiotics are not effective against viruses. They may occasionally be used to treat some bacterial infections that develop following a cold.

When to see a doctor

Go to your doctor if you or your child has any of the following:

  • temperature higher than 38.5 degrees C or chills,
  • neck stiffness,
  • severe headache,
  • sensitivity to light,
  • chest pain,
  • shortness of breath or difficulty breathing,
  • a skin rash or pale or mottled skin,
  • vomiting,
  • unusual drowsiness,
  • persistent cough, or
  • aching muscles.

In addition, take your baby or child to the doctor if they have:

  • a bulging fontanel (the soft spot on top of the baby’s head),
  • excessive irritability,
  • high pitched cry,
  • loss of appetite, or
  • earache.
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