|Also Listed As:
|| Cold; Respiratory Infection,
The common cold is an upper respiratory infection caused by a virus. In the
United States, adults have between 3 and 6 colds a year, and children have as
many as 8 to 10.
|Signs and Symptoms|
- Sneezing and runny nose from nasal congestion
- Sore throat
- Fever (102 F or lower)
More than 200 different types of viruses cause colds. You can get a cold by
touching a person with a cold (for example, by shaking hands with a person with
a cold) and then touching your nose or eyes. Colds are also transmitted through
the air. Exposure to cold outdoor air and fatigue do not make you more likely to
get a cold, although psychological stress may.
People more likely to get colds include:
- Children and those over 65
- Children who have parents who smoke
- Children who attend day care
- Smokers and those exposed to second hand smoke
- Those exposed to industrial smoke, toxic fumes, or other air
- People with immune system disorders, like HIV, AIDS, or cancer, or
compromised immune function, like those taking steroids for a long time
- People under a fair amount of stress
In addition, colds are more likely during the winter months, but not because
of exposure to cold air. This is likely because of the increased contact with
others who are sick due to more time spent indoors.
Most people recognize that they have a cold and treat it themselves without
seeing a doctor. If you do see your doctor, the diagnosis will be made based on
your symptoms and exam. Tests are not necessary. Colds generally go away on
their own after about 7 to 10 days. If you have an underlying lung condition,
however, like asthma or emphysema, you should let your doctor know right away
when you get a cold.
Although anyone and everyone can get a cold, there are a few things that you
can do that may help improve your immune system and make you less susceptible to
- Exercise regularly
- Eat a proper diet rich in fruits and vegetables and low in fat
- Get sufficient rest at all times
- Minimize your stress and your reaction to stress. Consider yoga, tai
chi, or other forms of relaxation on an ongoing basis.
- Wash your hands frequently, especially after coming into contact with
someone who has a cold.
With a cold, the goal of treatment is to improve your symptoms as quickly as
possible. With that said, even if you do nothing, they should go away within 10
days. Antibiotics (which are for bacterial infections) and antihistamines (which
are for allergies) cannot help cure your cold. There are
homeopathic remedies that may make you
feel better while you have a cold.
- Drink a lot of water to help loosen secretions.
- Rest to restore your energy and avoid complications from the cold like
bronchitis or pneumonia.
- Eat a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables. These foods provide
lots of antioxidants (substances that may help boost your immune system),
especially vitamins A and C.
- Decongestants: may help prevent sinus and ear infections. Do not take
if you have a heart condition or high blood pressure.
- Nasal sprays: Use only for the recommended amount of time (usually
three to five days). You can become reliant on them, and they can make your
symptoms worse if used for too long.
- Aspirin and other pain relievers (like acetominophen or ibuprofen) can
be used for fever or aches. Take only if necessary. Do not give aspirin to
children under 18 because of the risk of Reye's syndrome (a condition of that
leads to brain and liver damage).
|Nutrition and Dietary Supplements|
Because supplements may have side effects or interact with medications, they
should be taken only under the supervision of a knowledgeable healthcare
provider. Be sure to talk to your physician about any supplements you are taking
or considering taking.
Lactobacillus is a probiotic, which means that it is an organism that
actually helps fight, rather than cause, infection. Studies have been quite
promising in terms of the ability of lactobacillus supplements or lactobacillus
in certain milk and yogurt products to help reduce the likelihood of getting a
respiratory infection, like a cold, even in children. Talk to your doctor or
pediatrician about possibly trying lactobacillus.
Despite the popular belief that vitamin C can cure the common cold, the
scientific evidence supporting this idea is limited. There have been a few
studies suggesting that taking large doses of vitamin C supplements at the onset
of cold or flu symptoms, or just after exposure to someone with one of these
ailments, can shorten the duration of your cold or ward it off altogether.
However, the majority of studies, when looked at collectively, lead researchers
to conclude that vitamin C does not prevent or treat the common cold.
If that is the case, however, why do so many stand strongly by the belief
that it works? Some experts suggest that vitamin C may only be useful in case of
a cold if you have low levels of this nutrient to begin with. Another
possibility is that the likelihood of success may be very individual
- some improve, while others do not.
If you are amongst the 67% of people who believe that vitamin C is helpful
for your colds, there may be power in your conviction. In other words, your
experience is important and if vitamin C has worked for you in the past, it is
likely to work for you again. Talk to your doctor about any pros and cons with
regards to using vitamin C during cold and flu season.
Zinc plays an important role in the immune system, which may explain why it
seems to be helpful in protecting against infections such as colds. People who
are zinc deficient tend to be more susceptible to a variety of infections. Zinc
supplementation enhances immune system activity and protects against a range of
infections including colds and upper respiratory infections (like bronchitis).
Several important studies, but not all, have revealed that zinc lozenges may
reduce the intensity of the symptoms associated with a cold, particularly cough,
and the length of time that a cold lingers. Similarly, nasal zinc gel seems to
shorten the duration of a cold. However, zinc nasal spray does not appear to
have the same benefit.
The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and
treating disease. Herbs, however, contain active substances that can trigger
side effects and interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For
these reasons, herbs should be taken with care and only under the supervision of
a practitioner knowledgeable in the field of herbal medicine. Be sure to also
talk to your physician about any herbs that you are taking or considering
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)
Astragalus has been used traditionally to enhance the immune system,
including possibly preventing and treating colds and flus. Some practitioners
claim that this herb shortens the duration of colds, although science has not
proven this. Astragalus should not be used if you are taking certain medications
for HIV or other viruses.
Celery seed (Apium graveolens)
Celery seed is one of the lesser-known herbs in Western herbal medicine. In
other parts of the world, however, it has been used for thousands of years for a
variety of reasons including by Ayurvedic physicians (practitioners who practice
Ayurvedic medicine, an ancient Indian from of health care) to treat colds and
Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea)
One of the most popular herbs in America today is the Native American
medicinal plant known as Echinacea (also called coneflower). Echinacea is
primarily used to shorten the duration of the common cold and the flu and to
alleviate the symptoms associated with them, such as sore throat (pharyngitis),
cough, and fever. Although the data in the medical literature goes back and
forth somewhat, certain scientific studies do support that Echinacea will have
this effect if you start taking it soon after your cold symptoms begin. Science
does not support the use of Echinacea before you have a cold or flu, however. In
other words, to date, research suggests that this herb does not help prevent
colds and flus (despite the popularity of this use), but it does support that it
helps treat them if taken early enough.
Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus)
Eucalyptus is commonly used in remedies to treat the common cold and its
symptoms, particularly cough. It can be found in many lozenges, cough syrups,
and vapor baths throughout the United States and Europe. Herbalists recommend
the use of fresh leaves in teas and gargles to soothe sore throats. Ointments
containing eucalyptus leaves are also applied to the nose and chest to relieve
congestion. Eucalyptus oil helps loosen phlegm, so many herbal practitioners
recommend inhaling eucalyptus vapors to help treat coughs and the flu.
Garlic (Allium sativum)
Garlic has been used as both food and medicine in many cultures for thousands
of years, dating as far back as the time that the Egyptian pyramids were built.
Today, garlic is used for many health related purposes including to try to
reduce symptoms from a cold, such as cough. At least one well-designed
scientific study supports the use of garlic for preventing and treating colds.
The people who participated in this research trial received either garlic
supplements or placebo for 12 weeks during "cold season" (between the months of
November and February). Those who received the garlic had significantly fewer
colds than those who received placebo. Plus, when faced with a cold, the
symptoms lasted a much shorter time in those receiving garlic compared to those
German Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
Chamomile has been used to treat a variety of symptoms related to colds
including chest and nasal congestion as well as sore throats.
Goldenrod (Solidago virgaurea)
Goldenrod is used by herbalists for a wide range of health problems including
colds and flus.
Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)
Goldenseal is often combined with echinacea in preparations designed to
strengthen the immune system. Many professional herbalists recommend goldenseal
in herbal remedies for hay fever (also called allergic rhinitis), colds, and
flu. Goldenseal has not been thoroughly investigated in scientific studies,
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
Licorice root has been used in both Eastern and Western medicine to treat a
variety of illnesses including the common cold, cough, and sore throat. It is
important to note, however, that people who regularly consume large amounts of
licorice (more than 20 g/day) may inadvertently raise blood levels of the
hormone aldosterone, which can cause serious side effects including headache,
high blood pressure, and heart problems. Use of any licorice product is not
recommended for longer than four to six weeks. People with high blood pressure,
obesity, diabetes, or kidney, heart, or liver conditions should not use this
herb nor should you use it if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, have decreased
libido or other sexual dysfunction.
Linden (Tilia spp.)
Linden is used in many cough and cold remedies. Active ingredients in linden
help promote sweating, which may be helpful if you have a fever.
Marshmallow (Althea officinalis)
Although science hasn't tested this traditional use, professional herbalists
may recommend marshmallow for cold, cough, and sore throat.
Peppermint (Mentha x piperita)
Peppermint is widely used for cold symptoms. This is because peppermint and
its main active agent, menthol, are effective decongestants. Menthol also thins
mucus and, therefore, works as a good expectorant, meaning that it helps loosen
and break up coughs with phlegm. It is soothing and calming for sore throats
(pharyngitis) and dry coughs as well.
Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus/Acanthopanax
Siberian ginseng may help the body deal with physically and mentally
stressful exposures such as viruses that cause the common cold. By strengthening
your system, it may, in theory, also help prevent illness. In fact, a 4-week
study of healthy people found that those who received Siberian ginseng extract
had improvements in a number of measures that reflect the functioning of the
immune system. Also, in laboratory studies, an extract of Siberian ginseng
slowed the replication of certain viruses, including influenza A (which causes
the flu) as well as human rhinovirus and respiratory syncytial virus (both of
which cause symptoms of the common cold). It had no effect, however, in test
tubes on adenovirus (another cause of the common cold and other respiratory
infections). These findings don't guarantee that you will be less likely to
develop colds and flus if you take Siberian ginseng, but they do suggest that
that is possible. More research to test this idea would be interesting.
Wild yam (Dioscorea villosa)
Although not studied scientifically, wild yam has been used traditionally in
the Amazon and in central America to treat a variety of conditions including
fever and colds.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
There has been very little research on yarrow's medicinal properties.
Clinical experience, however, supports the use of yarrow for colds and fever. It
seems to bring down body temperature by promoting perspiration.
Although very few studies have examined the effectiveness of specific
homeopathic therapies, professional homeopaths may consider the following
remedies for the treatment of the common cold based on their knowledge and
experience. It is important to note, however, that cold symptoms are viewed in
homeopathic medicine as the body's natural way of eliminating a virus. For this
reason, homeopathic doctors may recommend no treatment at all in the case of a
cold. If a remedy is selected, the intention is generally to boost the body's
natural immune response. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into
account a person's constitutional type. A constitutional type is defined as a
person's physical, emotional, and psychological makeup. An experienced homeopath
assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate treatment
for each individual.
- Aconitum -- for symptoms including fever, anxiety, and thirst,
that start abruptly, often following exposure to a cold climate or draft; most
effective during the first 24 hours of the illness
- Allium cepa -- for colds with clear watery discharge that burns
and/or irritates the nostrils; red, burning eyes; and symptoms that worsen in
warm rooms and in the evening
- Arsenicum album -- for colds with watery, burning discharge
from the eyes and nose, throbbing headache, nasal congestion that is not
relieved by sneezing, dry mouth, sensitivity to cold, and a thirst for small
sips of fluid
- Belladonna -- for colds with sudden onset of high fever,
flushed face, watery nasal discharge, sore throat, throbbing headache, earache,
and cough that tends to worsen at night; this remedy is most appropriate for
individuals who are often agitated and sometimes delirious; these symptoms may
cause children to cry
- Bryonia -- for chest colds with spastic cough that produces
only a small amount of mucus and sharp chest pain that worsens with inhalation
and while coughing; a dull headache, little to no nasal discharge, and sneezing
may also be present
- Euphrasia -- for colds with excessive, non-irritating watery
discharge that tends to worsen in the morning and when the person is lying down
- Ferrum phosphoricum -- for the early stages of a cold with
slight fever, flushed face (redness may be patchy), and fatigue; may also be
used in children with nosebleeds or bloody nasal discharge
- Gelsemium -- for colds that have gradual onset with watery
nasal discharge that causes irritation, a feeling of fullness or tickling in the
nose and/or the back of the throat, muscle aches, fatigue, lack of energy,
lightheadedness or spaciness, and a headache with pain in the back of the head
- Hepar sulphuricum -- for late stages of a cold when nasal
discharge turns from watery to thick, yellow, and foul smelling; symptoms tend
to worsen in the evening and with cold and wind
- Mercurius -- for fluctuating body temperature and thick, yellow
nasal discharge with a foul odor; symptoms may also include bad breath and a
- Pulsatilla -- for coughs and nasal congestion with thick,
yellow-green mucus that does not burn the skin; symptoms tend to worsen in warm,
stuffy rooms and when the person is lying on his or her back; this remedy is
most appropriate for children (even newborns) and adults who are weepy, have
mood swings, and are easily influenced by others
A study of a small number of university students suggests that practicing
relaxation techniques on a regular basis may help reduce the number of days that
you have a cold or the flu. A similar study using relaxation techniques and
guided imagery reached the same conclusion for a group of 45 children. Some good
stress reduction techniques include meditation, deep relaxation, yoga, tai chi,
and breathing exercises.
Tell your health care provider if you are pregnant or think you are pregnant.
Some medications, herbs, and supplements may be harmful to the fetus and should,
therefore, not be taken if you are pregnant or trying to become
If you have asthma, emphysema, or any other underlying respiratory disorder,
you should talk to your doctor as soon as you develop cold symptoms.
|Warnings and Precautions|
If your symptoms have not resolved in 7 to 10 days, you should call your
doctor. Other reasons to see your physician include high fever (above 102°F),
thick, green nasal discharge, or development of a productive cough (cough with
phlegm), especially if it is thick and green as well.
|Prognosis and Complications|
Generally, as stated earlier, colds resolve on their own in 7 to 10 days.
Some potential complications from colds include:
- Worsening of a pre-existing respiratory condition, such as asthma or
- Ear infection
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|Review Date: June 2003|
|Reviewed By: Participants in the review process include: Shiva Barton, ND, Wellspace,
Cambridge, MA; Jacqueline A. Hart, MD, Department of Internal Medicine,
Newton-Wellesley Hospital, Boston, Ma and Senior Medical Editor A.D.A.M., Inc.;
Richard A. Lippin, MD, President, The Lippin Group, Southampton, PA; Leonard
Wisneski, MD, FACP, George Washington University, Rockville,
Copyright © 2004 A.D.A.M., Inc
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