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Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others

Common colds are the main reason why children miss school and adults miss work. Each year, there are more than 1 billion cases of the common cold in the United States. Most people get colds in the winter and spring. However, it is possible to get a cold at any time of the year.

Photo: Man sneezing into tissueMany different viruses can cause colds. However, many colds are caused by rhinoviruses. Cold viruses spread from infected people to others in different ways. They can spread through the air, close personal contact, and objects or surfaces. For example, you might get infected by shaking hands with someone who has a cold, or by touching a doorknob that has viruses that cause colds on it, then touching your eyes, mouth, or nose.

Signs and Symptoms

A sore throat and runny nose are usually the first signs of a cold. Nasal discharge may appear clear or watery in the early stages of infection, becoming thicker and changing color after a few days. Other cold symptoms include coughing, sneezing, watery eyes, headaches, and body aches. Most people recover within 10 days or so.

Some people may have symptoms that are more severe, such as lower respiratory tract infections and pneumonia. People who have asthma or other chronic respiratory illnesses are at risk for more serious symptoms, as are those whose immune systems are compromised. For people with asthma, rhinoviruses can contribute to acute asthma attacks.

When to See a Doctor

You should call your doctor if you or your child has one or more of these conditions:

  • a temperature higher than 100.4° F
  • symptoms that last more than 10 days
  • symptoms that are severe or persistent

Your doctor can determine if you or your child has a cold and can recommend therapy to help with symptoms. If your child is younger than three months old and has a fever, it’s important to always call your doctor right away.

Prevention Tips

There is no vaccine to protect you against the common cold. However, you may be able to reduce your risk of getting a cold by taking these steps:

  • wash your hands often with soap and water
  • do not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands
  • stay away from people who are sick

photo

Wash your hands after blowing your nose

If you have a cold, you can help protect other people.

  • Stay at home while you are sick.
  • Avoid close contact with others.
  • Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze.
  • Avoid sneezing or coughing around other people.
  • Keep objects and surfaces clean and disinfected.
  • Wash your hands after blowing your nose.

How to Feel Better

There is no specific treatment to cure a cold. Your best bet is to get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids. Over-the-counter medicines may help ease symptoms, but they will not make your cold go away any faster. Always read the label and use medications as directed. Talk to your doctor before giving your child nonprescription cold medicines, since some medicines contain ingredients that are not recommended for children. Learn more about symptom relief.

If you have a common cold caused by viruses, antibiotics will not help you. They do not work against viruses, and they may make it harder for your body to fight bacterial infections. Learn more about when antibiotics work. However, sometimes a cold caused initially by viruses may be complicated by a bacterial infection. If you have a high fever or your symptoms are severe or persist, you should contact your doctor.

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