Childhood Diseases

The Common Cold

The cold is caused by a wide variety of viruses. Symptoms include sore throat, runny nose and watery eyes, sneezing, chills, and mild aches and pains. Colds are spread when a healthy person breathes in germs that a sick person has coughed, sneezed, or breathed into the air. It's also possible to get a cold if you touch a surface that a sick person has coughed or sneezed on and then touch your eyes or nose.

Children are very susceptible to colds. In fact, children are the primary sources and spreaders of cold viruses! Why? Because they are in close contact with other children and adults, they haven't learned the lessons of good hygiene yet so their hands are often not properly washed, and they don't always cover their nose and mouth when they cough or sneeze. In addition, their sinus and ear drainage passages and bronchial tubes are small, so they are easily blocked by mucus and swelling.

Many types of viruses cause colds, but the common cold is usually caused by a family of viruses called rhinoviruses. Each virus may have a slightly different pattern of symptoms and severity. Cold viruses enter the body through the nose. They infect a small number of cells in the lining of the nose, and that is enough to cause infection. The incubation period for a cold is 10 to 12 hours. Peak symptoms usually appear between two and three days later. Colds can last up to two weeks, but if they hang on longer, they may be allergy-related or they may have led to a secondary respiratory infection.

Potent Fact

There are an estimated one billion colds in the United States each year.

The symptoms that develop after infection with a cold virus are due to the immune system's response to the infection. That response causes secretions from the nose and triggers cough and sneeze reflexes. It also stimulates pain nerve fibers, causing aches and soreness in muscles and joints.

Antigen Alert

There is no conclusive medical evidence that Vitamin C helps to prevent colds.

Symptoms of the common cold are obstructed breathing, swelling of sinus membranes, sneezing, coughing, sore throat, and sometimes a low-grade fever.

After years of trying, we still have no cure for the common cold. The best we can do is treat the symptoms. Bed rest, drinking lots of fluids, gargling with warm salt water, and taking aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen for relief of aches and fever can help ease the discomfort a cold brings. Sometimes antihistamines, decongestants, and cough medicine help, too. None of these things will shorten the duration of a cold, but they will make it easier to bear.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Dangerous Diseases and Epidemics © 2002 by David Perlin, Ph.D., and Ann Cohen. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.