Health A to Z

Cold

Not sure if you’ve got a cold or the flu? The symptoms can be similar: fever, cough and feeling achy all over.

cold causes, symptoms, and treatment

But luckily the common cold, which is an upper respiratory infection caused by a virus, is milder than the flu. With some rest and symptom relief, you should be back on your feet in a few days.

Cold causes There are more than 100 viruses that cause colds, but usually rhinoviruses are to blame. You probably caught yours by touching a surface laden with someone else’s cold germs, then touching your eyes or nose or inhaling the germs when someone infected with the virus sneezed or coughed near you. While colds can occur at any time of year, they mostly occur during the winter.

Cold symptoms A scratchy throat is often the first sign of a common cold. Sneezing, a stuffy or runny nose, coughing, muscle aches, headache, watery eyes and a fever up to 102° (any higher is more likely the flu or another infection) is also a sign of a cold. These symptoms usually appear two to three days after you’ve been infected with a cold and may linger for two to 14 days.

Cold diagnosis/tests Colds usually run their course within about a week and a lingering cough may last another week after that. Typically people can treat colds without a doctor’s help. Consult your doctor if you experience the following:

If you have a lung condition, such as asthma or emphysema, let your doctor know when you have a cold.

If your sore throat worsens and you notice white or yellow spot on the tonsils or throat, you might have a strep throat, which requires antibiotics.

If a stuffy nose or cough lingers beyond two weeks, which may suggest a sinus infection or allergies.

If you’re having trouble breathing, which could be a symptom of pneumonia.

Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and depending on what illness she suspects, may run some tests, such as swabbing your throat for a throat culture, blood tests, or a chest X-ray or refer you to an allergist for allergy skin tests. If you have an infection that’s not a cold, she may prescribe medications.

Cold treatment There’s no cure for the common cold yet so the best plan is to treat your symptoms while your body battles the virus. Antibiotics should not be used to treat a common cold.

Stay hydrated Get lots of rest and drink fluids, including chicken soup, while you fight the infection.

Ease achiness Over-the-counter pain relievers, decongestants and cold/cough medicines may help relieve symptoms such as an achy body, headache or cough. Antihistamines may help dry up nasal mucus.

Soothe a sore throat Gargling with warm salt water, using cough drops and throat sprays may help ease throat irritation.

Manage mucus Saline nasal sprays can help loosen mucus in a stuffed nose. Thick yellow or green mucus is normal during a cold and doesn’t warrant antibiotic use; if it lasts more than two weeks, see your doctor, since you may have a sinus infection.

Cold prevention Adults average about two to four colds a year. It is possible to minimize your exposure and vulnerability to cold germs with these healthy habits:

Wash your hands Use warm soapy water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer to wash your hands frequently throughout the day, especially before you eat.

Steer clear of germs Stay away from people with colds who are the most contagious for the first two or three days after they are infected. Don’t share utensils or food.

Boost your immune system Keep your immune system healthy by getting plenty of sleep, drinking water to stay hydrated, eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and avoiding secondhand smoke.

Get herbal help While the evidence is still mixed, taking the herbal remedy echinacea may help guard against colds and shorten their duration. Talk to your pharmacist to find out if it’s safe for you; pregnant and breastfeeding women are among those who should not use it.

Outside resources
Common cold: Canadian Lung Association
Using over-the-counter drugs to treat cold symptoms
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety Answers: Common Cold