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Understanding and Managing Common Cold Symptoms

Armen Hareyan's picture

Symptoms of Cold

It may not be nice to fool Mother Nature, but when it comes to colds, you need all the ammunition you can get, say health experts. Americans suffer an estimated one billion colds a year, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

Environment's Effect on the Cold

Because so many colds occur in the winter time, there has always been a sense that cold weather causes colds. In fact, a recent small study from the United Kingdom's Common Cold Centre in Wales found that when people were exposed to a chill they came down with cold symptoms at double the rate of those study participants who kept warm. But there was no difference in the severity of cold symptoms. That is because people who are exposed to the cold experience a constriction of blood vessels in their noses, which shuts off warm blood from nourishing the white cells that fight infection, the study's authors say. The study was reported in the medical journal Family Practice. "The reduced defenses in the nose allow the virus to get stronger and common cold symptoms develop," says study author Ron Eccles, of Cardiff University. But, he adds, "although the chilled subject believes he has 'caught a cold,' what has in fact happened is that the dormant infection has taken hold."

Dr. Jordan Josephson, director of New York Nasal and Sinus Center in New York City, says "As body temperature drops, the body fights infection less well, so the two could be related." Not everyone agrees that staying curled up in front of a warm fire is the best remedy for a cold, however. "Whatever compromises your own immune system would put you at risk, [but] outdoor air dilutes the cold viruses," says Jean Pfeiffer, RN, MPH, a faculty member at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing. "A lot of health professionals believe that being outdoors is healthy for you," says Pfeiffer. Pfeiffer adds that cold viruses are also very easily spread indoors.

Every time a person sneezes or even speaks, he or she releases large droplets that contain the virus. These droplets are carried to others both by the air and by landing on surfaces, which become infected by these droplets. According to the Minnesota expert, indoor gatherings of people - which are more common in cold weather - are probably the most likely breeding grounds for colds.

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Need-To-Know Information from Experts

No matter what the source of a cold, however, prevention is key, because once a cold sets in it usually lasts for three to five days, and sometimes longer, causing absenteeism from both work and school. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 22 million school days are lost every year due to colds.

The most effective way to lower the risk for colds is to observe some rules of basic hygiene, Pfeiffer says. Wash your hands often with soap and water, using your own towel to dry them. Keep your hands away from your face - this stops any hand-borne virus from reaching the mouth. And do not share glasses, dishes, or silverware. "Use tissues freely," Pfeiffer notes. If someone has a cold, keep at least three feet away from them. If that is not possible, for example in the case of a mother taking care of a baby, wash your hands as often as you can. Persons should use an alcohol-based hand gel that kills germs if soap and water is not available, comments Pfeiffer.

And if you have a cold yourself, do your friends, family, and colleagues a favor by staying home if possible, so you do not infect others. While there is no antibiotic cure for a cold, sufferers do have tools to speed its progress, notes Pfeiffer. "Keep well hydrated [drink plenty of fluids] so your system will be flushed,." she says. "The sinuses will be more open, and it does a lot [to ease discomfort]." She recommends drinking a cup of liquid every hour so that urine remains clear.

Other health professionals believe that taking over-the-counter antihistamines, decongestants, and pain relievers like ibuprofen at the first sign of symptoms can also help relieve the burden. It is also important to make sure that what you have got really is a cold. "A cold is a layman's term for not feeling well," says Dr. Josephson, but you could have other illnesses that need treatment, such as an infection, allergies, or recurrent sinusitis.

Common cold symptoms include a runny nose, scratchy throat, congestion, a cough, and that general rundown feeling. However, mucus that is yellow or green rather than clear could point to a bacterial infection that needs to be treated with antibiotics, he says. Allergies can also mimic cold symptoms. Sudden sneezing jags could mean you are having a reaction to fall allergens. "Sneezing is a reaction to particles inside your nose that are saying, 'Get me out,'" remarks Dr. Josephson. Itchy eyes or dark circles under the eyes are also symptoms of allergies rather than colds. "And if you have a cold every two months, it is not a cold but rather chronic sinusitis," says Dr. Josephson.

Always consult your physician for more information.