The common cold is an infection of your upper respiratory tract, i.e. your nose and throat, that is caused by viruses particularly during the rainy or winter season. A common cold is usually harmless and most people recover in one to two weeks at the most. Since it’s one of the most-common illnesses known to mankind, I’m sure we are all familiar what the symptoms of a common cold are: sore throat, runny nose, stuffy nose, sneezing, coughing – yes? Many people, however, mix up common colds with influenza (also known as the flu). That’s why today, Face2FaceAfrica will be clarifying what the differences are and letting you in on what you should know about common colds.
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Causes of the Common Cold
There are more than 100 known viruses that can cause a common cold. The rhinovirus is, however, the most-common culprit, and incidentally, it’s also the most contagious.
The virus enters your body through your mouth, eyes, or nose by contact when someone who is infected coughs, sneezes, or talks. The common cold is also spread by hand-to-hand contact with someone who has a cold, e.g. through handshakes or by contact with contaminated objects and surfaces, such as table tops, utensils, towels, toys, or telephones. If you touch your eyes, nose, or mouth after such contact or exposure, you’re likely to catch a cold.
Symptoms of the Common Cold/Differentiating It from Flu
Symptoms of the common cold usually appear about one to three days after you’ve been infected by a cold-causing virus and last for about a week or two. You can, however, still pass the virus to people while you have these symptoms.
Colds usually begin suddenly with a sore or itchy throat, which then progresses to symptoms such as clear, watery nasal drips (runny nose); sneezing, and malaise (feeling of being generally tired). Gradually, your voice may become hoarse and you may develop a mild cough. Fevers are generally uncommon in adults, but when they happen, they are usually low grade – below 38°C.
Later, the watery secretions from your nose may become thicker and darker as well. If you’re coughing up dark mucus or feeling distress deep down in your lungs, it’s possible you have a bacterial infection that has superimposed itself on the viral cold. In this case, it’s best to speak with your doctor.
Other symptoms include slight body aches and mild headaches.
What makes a common cold different from the flu is that, with the flu, you have more severe symptoms, a higher fever, chills, worse body aches, and fatigue.
If the symptoms of your cold, however, last longer than three weeks, you’re probably dealing with an allergy.
Protecting Yourself Against Common Cold
Your best protection against the common cold is simple: hand washing! When someone who is
infected talks, sneezes, or coughs, contagious droplets are sprayed on to nearby surfaces, including you. When people cough or sneeze in to their hands (without a tissue), they contaminate every surface they touch. You then touch the same surface or shake hands with them and pick up the virus, and when you rub your eyes or nose, you infect yourself.
To protect yourself and prevent the spread of cold:
- Wash your hands frequently or use an alcohol-based gel/hand sanitizer if you don’t have access to water at the time.
- Cough and sneeze in to a tissue or in to your hands (then wash your hands afterward!)
- If you do not have tissue and you feel the urge to cough, turn your head away from others.
- If you get a sudden urge to sneeze, bend your arm and sneeze in to the bend of your elbow.
- Don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth carelessly, especially when you’ve touched random things in public.
- Clean any shared surfaces and objects frequently, e.g. home phones, remote controls, and keyboards. These viruses are tough and can survive on surfaces for several hours.
- For your kids, choose your crèches and child care centres wisely. Look for one with good hygiene practices and clear policies about managing sick children.
- Try to stay away from crowded places during cold and flu season (usually rainy or wet seasons).
- Teach your children and younger ones the above guidelines, so they can protect themselves too.
Simple Home Remedies for the Common Cold
Unfortunately, as with most viral infections that always run their full course, there’s no particular cure for the common cold, but you can make yourself as comfortable as possible using these simple guidelines:
- Drink lots of fluids. The importance of taking lots of fluids when you have a cold cannot be overemphasized because you need to replace fluids your body has lost through mucus production and fever. Water, juice, clear broth, and even warm lemon water are good choices.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine. It is important to avoid alcohol and caffeine in beverages and power drinks when battling a cold because as tempted as you my feel to consume them, they can be an added cause of dehydration.
- Avoid cigarette smoke. Smoking and being in environments where you inhale lots of secondary cigarette smoke can worsen your symptoms.
- Try chicken or pepper soup. For years, our parents have fed us variations of chicken soup, and for Africans, we’ve all been given our mum’s famous pepper soup when we have cold. While these foods are comforting, the steam and heat from them have been found to help speed up the movement of mucus through the nose, helping to relieve the stuffiness.
- Rest! Where possible, try to stay home from work or school if you have a common cold as this will give you a chance to rest as well as reduce the chances that you’ll infect other people.
- Keep your room warm. It is important to stay warm when you have a cold. Adjust your room temperature but do not overheat yourself. If the air is dry, you can use a humidifier or vaporizer to moisten the air; this helps to ease congestion and coughing. (But be sure to keep the humidifier clean to prevent the growth of bacteria and molds that can cause sinister infections).
- Soothe your throat symptoms. You can relieve a sore or itchy throat by gargling some warm saltwater mix – about a quarter or half a teaspoon full of salt dissolved in a glass of warm water.
- Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. While they won’t give you a cure, OTC painkillers, such as acetaminophen and aspirin, have anti-inflammatory properties that help reduce fever and headache symptoms of cold just so that you feel more comfortable. It is important to not use these meds indiscriminately as they have side effects. Be sure you’re not at risk of developing health issues from using them before you go ahead. Do not give drugs to children without a doctor’s prescription.
When You Need To See a Doctor for Your Common Cold
Common cold symptoms are not dangerous in themselves unless they occur in newborns and people with already compromised immune systems. This is not to say that sometimes you won’t get symptoms that are particularly nasty. Please seek medical attention, especially if experience the following with your cold symptoms:
- You are unable to swallow or your throat hurts when you swallow
- Your sore throat lasts for more than five days
- Your ear aches as well
- You are pregnant or breastfeeding
- Your newborn baby or infant has cold symptoms
- Your temperature is 38°C or higher
- Your cold symptoms get progressively worse by the fifth day
- Your face hurts and you are producing thick yellow/green mucus for more than a week or you see blood in your mucus.
- You have a stiff neck or sensitivity to bright lights. (In this instance, you must seek immediate medical attention.)
After all is said and done, as the old saying goes, “Prevention is better than cure.” It’s just mid-year, so don’t let a nasty cold slow you down. Now that you know better, stay healthy and achieve those dreams!
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