Doctor's Notes on Colds
Colds are self-limiting upper respiratory viral infections (over 250 types) that usually affect the nose but may affect the throat, sinuses, ear structures and bronchi. Signs and symptoms are mild, self-limiting and can include post nasal drip (runny nose), sneezing, nasal congestion, cough, watery and/or itchy eyes. Some individuals develop a sore throat, low fever and mildly swollen lymph nodes near the face and neck. Colds do not involve the lungs. Most symptoms wane after about 5 – 10 days but the cough, for example, often lasts longer, sometimes up to 3 weeks.
Viral infections, especially rhinovirus types and less commonly, RSV, coronavirus and adenovirus types, cause colds. Colds are very contagious and easily spread by close associations, coughs and sneezes.
The most common complaints associated with a cold usually are mild. Cold stages are not well defined and have many names depending on which author you read. For example, stages of a cold can be the incubation period, the early symptomatic period (sore throat or scratchy throat), then quickly followed by several other symptoms listed below, followed by symptom reduction and recovery with symptoms stopping. Not all clinicians agree about cold stages and consider a cold a minor disease that runs its course quickly without formal "stages." The following symptoms usually occur with a cold:
- Sore throat or throat irritation
- Runny nose (increased mucus production) or postnasal drip
- Nasal and sinus blockage (thick mucus and debris) or congestion with or without sinus pressure
- Mild fever
- Watery eyes or redness and/or itchiness of eyes
- Some individuals may have mildly swollen lymph nodes near the neck and ears
Viruses cause colds. Most cold-causing viruses are very contagious and are transmitted from person to person. Some facts about common colds are as follows:
- Although colds have been with humans likely for eons, the first common cold virus was identified in 1956 in England, so the history of the cause of colds is relatively recent.
- Of the viruses that cause a cold, the most commonly occurring subtype is a group that lives in the nasal passages known as the "rhinovirus." Other less common cold viruses include coronavirus, adenovirus, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
- Cold viruses may spread through the air and can be transmitted from airborne droplets expelled when someone with a cold coughs or sneezes. Close association with an infected person with a cold is the major risk factor.
- The primary means of spreading a cold is through hand-to-face or -mouth contact or from objects that have been touched by someone with a cold, or by touching items where droplets produced by coughs or sneezes have recently landed and then touching the face or mouth.
- The typical transmission occurs when a cold sufferer rubs his or her nose and then, shortly thereafter, touches or shakes hands with someone who, in turn, touches his or her own nose, mouth, or eyes.
- Virus transmission also often occurs via frequently shared or touched objects such as doorknobs and other hard surfaces, handrails, grocery carts, telephones, and computer keyboards.
The common cold usually involves symptoms including runny nose, cough, sore throat, and sneezing. Each year, the common cold affects millions of Americans, causing them to miss school and work. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates adults have about 2-3 colds per year, and children experience 8-12 colds annually.
Cold & Flu : Influenza vs. Common Cold QuizQuestion
Which illness is known as a viral upper respiratory tract infection?See Answer
Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.