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Posted 12/6/2017 by UHBlog

You might catch a cold once in awhile, but kids can get colds eight – or more – times a year. If you're dealing with a cold that just won't go away, talk to us about what's normal.

Woman sneezing into tissue

A cold usually isn’t dangerous, but it sure can be a nuisance. Trying to navigate the day with sniffles and a runny nose can be a challenge. That’s why common colds are the main reason that children miss school and adults miss work, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“A common cold is the most common illness in the industrialized world, including the United States,” says internal medicine specialist Paul Coletta, MD. “A cold is usually pretty harmless, and most people fight it off in a few days. But for people with an underlying condition, like heart disease or a compromised immune system, it can become a more serious problem. If your symptoms continue for an extended period of time, a visit to your doctor would be advised.”

For otherwise healthy people, Dr. Coletta says, a cold that goes on for more than seven to 10 days might prompt medical attention. People with underlying conditions may want to get checked sooner.

“There are no proven cures for a cold,” he says. “The best you can do when you catch a cold is to manage the symptoms the best you can and wait it out.”

According to the CDC, the average adult will catch two to three colds each year. It's worse for children, reports the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). In the first two years of life, kids get more colds and upper respiratory infections than any other illness. In fact, the AAP says that children get eight to 10 colds each year, and maybe more if they are in child care or if there is an older school-age child in your house.   

Whether young or old, the most common symptoms of a cold include:
  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose 
  • Nasal congestion
  • Watery eyes
  • Coughing

Sometimes, you might have headaches and body aches, too. Additionally, you or your child might have a mild fever, loss of appetite, irritability and pus on the tonsils, which could indicate a strep infection. In babies 3 months and younger, symptoms can be misleading, with colds quickly developing into something more serious, such as bronchiolitis, croup or pneumonia. For that reason, call your child's pediatrician at the first sign of a cold. 

All colds start with a virus. In fact, more than 200 viruses are known to cause colds.

“The symptoms are caused not by the virus itself, but rather by the body’s reaction to the intruder,” Dr. Coletta says. “For example, the runny nose that can lead to a scratchy throat is an immune reaction to the virus.”

Controlling cold symptoms may help you or your child to be less miserable and restore some productivity to your day. Cold medications can help to clear congested and runny noses. In children 6 months of age and older, the AAP recommends giving your child single-ingredient acetaminophen or ibuprofen. 

“Medications should be taken according to directions,” he says. “Certain medications, like nasal spray, can be very effective, but are not meant to be used for more than 48 to 72 hours. Overuse can actually make the problem worse. Oral decongestants that contain pseudoephedrine can have adverse side effects. I would suggest consulting with your doctor before your take them or give them to your children.”

In adults and older children, simple, warm showers can help to relieve some cold symptoms. For infants, saline solutions can help clear their nasal congestion. Additionally, a cool-mist humidifier in their bedrooms can help children breathe easier. 

Some doctors and health professionals may recommend remedies like Vitamin C and zinc lozenges to fight colds. Dr. Coletta says there is limited evidence to suggest whether or not they actually help. 

People whose cold lingers on for more than the normal 5- to 10-day period actually may be catching more than one cold, Dr. Coletta says.

“Retransmission is common with colds,” he says. “People in a family tend to pass them back and forth. You might feel like you’re getting better, then get re-infected with a similar viral strain. But to be sure, if you can’t shake a cold after 10 days, it’s a good idea to check in with your doctor to rule out some sort of an underlying issue.”

The possibility of retransmission, he says, is why it’s important to practice good hygiene during a cold – as well as before you catch one.

“The best way to reduce your chances of catching a cold is to keep your hands clean and limit contact with people who have a cold,” Dr. Coletta says. “Viruses are transmitted through the air and by touch. You can get the virus from respiratory droplets from somebody’s sneeze, but also by touching their hand or a surface somebody touched after sneezing on their hand. Keeping your hands clean when you have a cold will help to stop it from spreading and recirculating.”

Keeping your body strong and healthy through regular exercise has also been shown to reduce the risk of picking up cold-causing viruses, Dr. Coletta says.

Paul Coletta, MD is an internal medicine specialist at University Hospitals Suburban Health Center. You can request an appointment with Dr. Coletta or any other doctor online.

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