The common cold

What is the common cold?

The common cold is the name given to a contagious viral disease which infects the soft lining of the nose and throat. This infection leads, in turn, to the most characteristic symptoms of a cold, the runny nose and sore throat.

What is the difference between a cold and the flu?

Sometimes it can be quite difficult to tell the difference between the common cold and the flu because many of the symptoms are similar. However, there are differences, as outlined below:

  • A cold can be 'caught' four or more times a year, whereas a bout of flu will usually only be contracted once a year, most probably during the winter months.
  • One of the earliest symptoms of a cold is a runny nose. This secretion looks like water, but gradually becomes thicker and more yellow as the cold worsens. As the soft lining (mucous membrane) of the nose swells up, it may become extremely difficult to breathe through the nose.
  • In cases of influenza, a runny, watery secretion from the nose may also be present but this seldom deteriorates to such an extent that it may affect breathing through the nose.
  • Patients suffering from both the common cold and a bout of influenza will generally feel unwell and below par but persistent, and sometimes severe, headaches may be present with influenza. Slight headaches are normally present with the common cold.
  • Influenza is characterised by severe fatigue and weakness, whereas a patient suffering from the common cold may be able to go about their daily chores, albeit with a runny nose and a nagging cough.
  • Among the first symptoms of the common cold are sneezing and a sore throat, with difficulty in swallowing. On the other hand, patients with influenza may first begin to complain about headaches, severe fatigue and weakness and a high temperature (fever).

Is the common cold contagious?

Yes. A person is deemed to be contagious from the day before the cold breaks out until two to three days after they recover. The infection is spread through the air by means of droplets from the infected person when they sneeze or cough.

Can 'catching a cold' be avoided?

Most people believe that it is virtually impossible to avoid 'catching' a cold, particularly during the winter months. However, there are a couple of steps which can be taken to minimise the risk of coming into contact with the virus which causes the common cold. These include:

  • Avoid coming into contact with people who have colds, if possible.
  • Do not touch your eyes or nose after being in physical contact (ie. shaking hands) with someone who has a cold. This is one of the most common ways of spreading the infection.
  • Avoid crowded, stuffy atmospheres where the risk of contracting the cold virus is much greater.
  • Wash hands thoroughly and frequently, especially after blowing your nose.
  • Keep rooms well ventilated at all times.

Is it necessary to visit the doctor?

No, except in very rare cases. The symptoms of the common cold will usually disappear within a week or two and, provided there are no other symptoms or complications, there should be no reason to visit your local GP. Since the common cold is caused by a virus, it does not respond to antibiotic treatment.

What should I do if I have a cold?

Unlike influenza, where bed rest is strongly advised, there should be no reason to curtail daily activities if suffering from the common cold. However, do recognise your limits and expect to become tired and worn out more easily. Other guidelines to follow include:

  • Stop smoking, because it irritates the mucous membrane (soft lining) of the nose even more and may also exacerbate other respiratory problems.
  • Drink plenty of warm liquids, as these are known to reduce the symptoms of the common cold.
  • Paracetamol, taken regularly in the recommended doses, will help to reduce your temperature and relieve pains and aches.
  • Nasal decongestants, which are available over the counter in your local pharmacy, will help to relieve the blocked up, stuffy feeling in the nose which is caused by swelling of the mucous membranes inside the nose.
  • Avoid stuffy or smoky atmospheres, as they will make you feel worse.
  • To aid breathing, try to sleep with your head on a high pillow.
  • Use paper tissues, and make sure to dispose of them properly after blowing your nose as this helps to reduce the spread of infection.

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