What is a Cold?


Key Link
Common Cold

A cold is a viral infection that usually affects the nose, throat, larynx and upper respiratory system. Colds are highly contagious. The usual symptoms of a cold are: runny nose or nasal congestion, sneezing, sore throat, hoarseness, dry cough, “blocked” or “popping” ears, body aches or a feeling of being rundown. Colds are self-limiting conditions which usually last about 7-10 days. All that you can do for a cold is to treat each cold symptom separately to make yourself more comfortable. Allergy symptoms are sometimes similar to cold symptoms. When in doubt – check with your health care provider.

Can You Prevent a Cold? 

Not really, but there are some common sense precautions you can take. Get adequate rest and exercise to keep your body’s defenses up. Keep the humidity up in your house or room, and don’t smoke. Wash your hands regularly and avoid touching your nose. Vitamin C’s role in the prevention of colds is questionable and taking large doses of any vitamin may result in adverse effects.

How Can You Take Care of Your Own Cold?

There is no “magic cure”  for a cold. Antibiotics are not effective against respiratory viruses. They are only effective against secondary bacterial infections, not for the cold itself. But there are several things you can do yourself to relieve the cold symptoms.

  • Sore Throat – Gargle with 1/2 teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water every four hours. This will help relieve the pain and reduce the swelling, and will work as well as any expensive preparation.
  • Nasal Congestion – To help reduce congestion, use steam inhalations. (Take a shower, fill a sink with hot water and breathe the steam, or use a vaporizer in a confined room.) Take a non-prescription decongestant to help reduce mucus production.

IMPORTANT: Read dosage instructions on the package. DO NOT TAKE if you have high blood pressure, heart disease, asthma, or thyroid disease. Check with your clinician first.

NOTE : Nasal sprays can be helpful when used according to directions. Use for only 1-3 days. Overuse can cause more congestion and long-term side effects.

  • Cough – A cough is the body’s way to loosen and rid the lungs of secretions, so it is often not wise to suppress a cough. Drink lots of fluids to loosen secretions and relieve irritation. If you have a dry, non-productive cough, take a non-prescription expectorant suppressant. You can also use steam inhalation (shower, sink, vaporizer) to help loosen the secretions in your chest.  

General Discomfort

  • Drink plenty of liquids (10-12 glasses daily) of water and fruit juice – not alcohol.
  • Get plenty of rest (at least of 8 hours daily).
  • Take 2 aspirin substitute every 4 hours, 4 times daily, to help reduce fever and body aches if necessary.
  • Cold viruses are found in the nasal droplets. Coughing, sneezing, and kissing seldom spread colds; they are spread by touching nasal discharges.

Don’t Spread Your Cold, Observe Good Hygiene

Cover your coughs and sneezes with disposable tissues. Wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your face. Keep your drinking glasses and towels separate from other people’s.

When Should You Seek Medical Attention?

You need professional health care when you have:

  • A fever over 101°F that lasts more than 24 hours.
  • A sore throat that is very severe or has lasted over 3 days.
  • Tonsils that are enlarged or have white spots on them.
  • Swollen glands.
  • Chest pains, are short of breath, or have a wheezing cough.
  • A cough lasting a week longer than the other cold symptoms.
  • Greenish, yellowish, bloody sputum being coughed up.
  • An earache.
  • A severe headache or facial pain which is not relieved by aspirin substitute.

Seek medical attention at the onset of a cold if you have a history of rheumatic fever, asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema or any other chronic illness.


Avoid drinking alcohol while taking medications. Taking two central nervous system depressants such as antihistamines and alcohol may have very serious side effects.