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Doc Talk Doc Talk: Wash those cold germs away

  • Published Monday, Nov. 5, 2012, at 10:11 p.m.

Fall has arrived, and winter is quickly approaching. Along with these cooler temperatures comes a frustrating illness that causes more than 500 million infections per year. The common cold leads to millions of lost days from school and work per year. The average adult has two to three colds per year, whereas children average more than eight colds per year.

The common cold can be caused by more than 200 different viruses. Despite the seasonal increase in colds, with some types of viruses there is no evidence that cold climates cause colds. Colds can occur at any time of the year. Colds are transmitted by direct contact (most commonly from the hands where the virus often can be found) and through infectious particles that are breathed, coughed or sneezed into the air. Viruses can survive for a few hours on surfaces such as counters, door handles and phones. Cold viruses are not spread by saliva.

Symptoms of the common cold include nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat, fatigue, cough and low-grade fever (more common in children than adults). Symptoms from common colds can be very similar to sinus infections in that colds also can cause green or yellow nasal drainage or sputum. Symptoms typically last about seven days but can continue for two weeks.

Complications of the common cold can include ear infections, sinus infections or pneumonia. Ear infections can cause fever and severe ear pain. Sinus infections usually are caused by viruses and rarely by bacteria. They can cause facial pain, teeth pain and ear pressure. Pneumonia typically causes shortness of breath, pain with breathing and high fevers. If you are concerned that you may be dealing with a severe infection, you should contact you doctor.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for the common cold. Antibiotics are not helpful. Treatments focus on improving symptoms. Pseudoephedrine often is used to help with nasal congestion and runny nose. Antihistamines such as loratadine or diphenhydramine can be helpful, as well. Over-the-counter nasal sprays such as oxymetazoline can help with nasal congestion. For cough symptoms, guaifenesin or dextromethorphan are sometimes used, but these will not work for everyone. There is no evidence from medical studies that vitamin C, zinc products or herbal supplements treat or prevent the common cold.

The most effective prevention of the common cold is hand-washing. Hands should be thoroughly washed for about 30 seconds with plain soap. Alcohol-based hand hygiene products also are effective and can be used multiple times per day. If you are around someone who is ill, wear a mask, if possible. Avoid touching your mouth, eyes and nose if you have been in contact with an ill person, and wash your hands as soon as possible. If you have a cold, cough or sneeze into your elbow to prevent spread of viral particles. Following these steps can help you have a healthy holiday season.

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