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Sneezing, scratchy throat, runny nose – everyone knows the first signs
of a cold, probably the most common illness known. Although the common
cold is usually mild, with symptoms lasting one to two weeks, it is a
leading cause of doctor visits and of school and job absenteeism.
In the course of a year, individuals in the United States suffer 1 billion colds,
according to some estimates.
Colds are most prevalent among children, and seem to be related to
youngsters' relative lack of resistance to infection and to contacts with
other children in day-care centers and schools. Children have about six to
ten colds a year. In families with children in school, the number of colds
per child can be as high as 12 a year. Adults average about two to four
colds a year, although the range varies widely. Women, especially those
aged 20 to 30 years, have more colds than men, possibly because of their
closer contact with children. On average, individuals older than 60 have
fewer than one cold a year.
The economic impact of the common cold is enormous. The National Center
for Health Statistics (NCHS) estimates that, in 1996, 62 million cases of
the common cold in the United States required medical attention or
resulted in restricted activity. In 1996, colds caused 45 million days of
restricted activity and 22 million days lost from school, according to
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More than 200 different viruses are known
to cause the symptoms of the common cold. Some, such as the rhinoviruses, seldom
produce serious illnesses. Others, such as parainfluenza and respiratory syncytial
virus, produce mild infections in adults but can precipitate severe lower respiratory
infections in young children.
Rhinoviruses (from the Greek rhin, meaning "nose") cause an
estimated 30 to 35 percent of all adult colds, and are most active in
early fall, spring and summer. More than 110 distinct rhinovirus types
have been identified. These agents grow best at temperatures of 33 degrees
Celsius [about 91 degrees Fahrenheit (F)], the temperature of the human
Coronaviruses are believed to cause a large percentage of all adult
colds. They induce colds primarily in the winter and early spring. Of the
more than 30 isolated strains, three or four infect humans. The importance
of coronaviruses as causative agents is hard to assess because, unlike
rhinoviruses, they are difficult to grow in the laboratory.
Approximately 10 to 15 percent of adult colds are caused by viruses
also responsible for other, more severe illnesses: adenoviruses,
coxsackieviruses, echoviruses, orthomyxoviruses (including influenza A and
B viruses), paramyxoviruses (including several parainfluenza viruses),
respiratory syncytial virus and enteroviruses.
The causes of 30 to 50 percent of adult colds, presumed to be viral,
remain unidentified. The same viruses that produce colds in adults appear
to cause colds in children. The relative importance of various viruses in
pediatric colds, however, is unclear because of the difficulty in
isolating the precise cause of symptoms in studies of children with colds.
Does cold weather cause a cold? Although
many people are convinced that a cold results from exposure to cold weather,
or from getting chilled or overheated, NIAID grantees have found that these
conditions have little or no effect on the development or severity of a cold.
Nor is susceptibility apparently related to factors such as exercise, diet,
or enlarged tonsils or adenoids. On the other hand, research suggests that
psychological stress, allergic disorders affecting the nasal passages or pharynx
(throat), and menstrual cycles may have an impact on a person's susceptibility
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In the United States, most colds occur during the fall and winter. Beginning
in late August or early September, the incidence of colds increases slowly for
a few weeks and remains high until March or April, when it declines. The seasonal
variation may relate to the opening of schools and to cold weather, which prompt
people to spend more time indoors and increase the chances that viruses will
spread from person to person.
Seasonal changes in relative humidity also may affect the prevalence of
colds. The most common cold-causing viruses survive better when humidity
is low—the colder months of the year. Cold weather also may make the nasal
passages' lining drier and more vulnerable to viral infection.
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Symptoms of the common cold usually begin two to three days after infection
and often include nasal discharge, obstruction of nasal breathing, swelling
of the sinus membranes, sneezing, sore throat, cough, and headache. Fever is
usually slight but can climb to 102o
F in infants and young children.
Cold symptoms can last from two to 14 days, but two-thirds of people recover
in a week. If symptoms occur often or last much longer than two weeks, they
may be the result of an allergy rather than a cold.
Colds occasionally can lead to secondary bacterial infections of the
middle ear or sinuses, requiring treatment with antibiotics. High fever,
significantly swollen glands, severe facial pain in the sinuses, and a
cough that produces mucus, may indicate a complication or more serious
illness requiring a doctor's attention.
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Viruses cause infection by overcoming the body's complex defense system. The
body's first line of defense is mucus, produced by the membranes in the nose
and throat. Mucus traps the material we inhale: pollen, dust, bacteria and viruses.
When a virus penetrates the mucus and enters a cell, it commandeers the protein-making
machinery to manufacture new viruses which, in turn, attack surrounding cells.
Cold symptoms: the body fights back. Cold symptoms
are probably the result of the body's immune response to the viral invasion.
Virus-infected cells in the nose send out signals that recruit specialized
white blood cells to the site of the infection. In turn, these cells emit
a range of immune system chemicals such as kinins. These chemicals probably
lead to the symptoms of the common cold by causing swelling and inflammation
of the nasal membranes, leakage of proteins and fluid from capillaries and
lymph vessels, and the increased production of mucus.
Kinins and other chemicals released by immune system cells in the nasal
membranes are the subject of intensive research. Researchers are examining
whether drugs to block them, or the receptors on cells to which they bind,
might benefit people with colds.
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Depending on the virus type, any or all of the following routes of transmission
may be common:
- Touching infectious respiratory secretions on skin and on
environmental surfaces and then touching the eyes or nose.
- Inhaling relatively large particles of respiratory secretions
transported briefly in the air.
- Inhaling droplet nuclei: smaller infectious particles suspended in
the air for long periods of time.
Research on rhinovirus transmission. Much of the
research on the transmission of the common cold has been done with rhinoviruses,
which are shed in the highest concentration in nasal secretions. Studies suggest
a person is most likely to transmit rhinoviruses in the second to fourth day
of infection, when the amount of virus in nasal secretions is highest. Researchers
also have shown that using aspirin to treat colds increases the amount of
virus shed in nasal secretions, possibly making the cold sufferer more of
a hazard to others.
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Handwashing is the simplest and most effective way to keep from getting rhinovirus
colds. Not touching the nose or eyes is another. Individuals with colds should
always sneeze or cough into a facial tissue, and promptly throw it away. If
possible, one should avoid close, prolonged exposure to persons who have colds.
Because rhinoviruses can survive up to three hours outside the nasal
passages on inanimate objects and skin, cleaning environmental surfaces
with a virus-killing disinfectant might help prevent spread of infection.
A cold vaccine? The development of a vaccine that
could prevent the common cold has reached an impasse because of the discovery
of many different cold viruses. Each virus carries its own specific antigens,
substances that induce the formation of specific protective proteins (antibodies)
produced by the body. Until ways are found to combine many viral antigens
in one vaccine, or take advantage of the antigenic cross-relationships that
exist, prospects for a vaccine are dim. Evidence that changes occur in common-cold
virus antigens further complicate development of a vaccine. Such changes occur
in some influenza virus antigens and make it necessary to alter the influenza
vaccine each year.
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Only symptomatic treatment is available for uncomplicated cases of the common
cold: bed rest, plenty of fluids, gargling with warm salt water, petroleum jelly
for a raw nose, and aspirin or acetaminophen to relieve headache or fever.
A word of caution: several studies have linked the use
of aspirin to the development of Reye's syndrome in
children recovering from influenza or chickenpox. Reye's syndrome is a
rare but serious illness that usually occurs in children between the ages
of three and 12 years. It can affect all organs of the body, but most
often injures the brain and liver. While most children who survive an
episode of Reye's syndrome do not suffer any lasting consequences, the
illness can lead to permanent brain damage or death. The American Academy
of Pediatrics recommends children and teenagers not be given aspirin or
any medications containing aspirin when they have any viral illness,
particularly chickenpox or influenza. Many doctors recommend these
medications be used for colds in adults only when headache or fever is
present. Researchers, however, have found that aspirin and acetaminophen
can suppress certain immune responses and increase nasal stuffiness in
Nonprescription cold remedies, including decongestants and cough
suppressants, may relieve some cold symptoms but will not prevent, cure,
or even shorten the duration of illness. Moreover, most have some side
effects, such as drowsiness, dizziness, insomnia, or upset stomach, and
should be taken with care.
Nonprescription antihistamines may have some effect in relieving
inflammatory responses such as runny nose and watery eyes that are
commonly associated with colds.
Antibiotics do not kill viruses. These prescription drugs should be
used only for rare bacterial complications, such as sinusitis or ear
infections, that can develop as secondary infections. The use of
antibiotics "just in case" will not prevent secondary bacterial
Does vitamin C have a role? Many
people are convinced that taking large quantities of vitamin C will prevent
colds or relieve symptoms. To test this theory, several large-scale, controlled
studies involving children and adults have been conducted. To date, no conclusive
data has shown that large doses of vitamin C prevent colds. The vitamin may
reduce the severity or duration of symptoms, but there is no definitive evidence.
Taking vitamin C over long periods of time in large amounts may be
harmful. Too much vitamin C can cause severe diarrhea, a particular danger
for elderly people and small children. In addition, too much vitamin C
distorts results of tests commonly used to measure the amount of glucose
in urine and blood. Combining oral anticoagulant drugs and excessive
amounts of vitamin C can produce abnormal results in blood-clotting tests.
Inhaling steam also has been proposed as a treatment of colds on the
assumption that increasing the temperature inside the nose inhibits
rhinovirus replication. Recent studies found that this approach had no
effect on the symptoms or amount of viral shedding in individuals with
rhinovirus colds. But steam may temporarily relieve symptoms of congestion
associated with colds.
Interferon-alpha has been studied extensively for the treatment of the
common cold. Investigators have shown interferon, given in daily doses by
nasal spray, can prevent infection and illness. Interferon, however,
causes unacceptable side effects such as nosebleeds and does not appear
useful in treating established colds. Most cold researchers are
concentrating on other approaches to combatting cold viruses.
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Thanks to basic research, scientists know more about the rhinovirus than almost
any other virus, and have powerful new tools for developing antiviral drugs.
Although the common cold may never be uncommon, further investigations offer
the hope of reducing the huge burden of this universal problem.
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