The Doctor Is In: How to take on the common cold

Getting a cold during winter is almost a guarantee, but a better understanding of this illness can help keep it from interfering with your daily life.

Winter means a lot of things to a lot of people — holidays, warm drinks, bitter cold that makes you count the minutes until spring, and so much more. For many in health care, though, winter means cold and flu season. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that adults get an average of two to three colds each year. Each of us knows the cough, sore throat, and congested nose that define the common cold. Knowing how to treat it, however, is a little more complicated, especially for those living on their own for the first time.

To understand the treatment, it is important to more clearly define the common cold. Colds are caused by viruses that infect cells of the upper airway, mainly your nose and throat. They spread from person to person both through the air and through direct contact. Coughing, sneezing, talking, shaking hands, touching a door handle — each of these actions can spread the virus to another person.

Once one of these viruses spreads to a healthy person, it gets inside cells in the upper airway and starts to irritate those areas. Your body responds by making more mucus in an attempt to flush the virus out. We perceive this as congestion and a runny nose. As the body makes more and more mucus, some of it drips down the back of your throat irritating the lining. When your throat gets irritated, your body triggers a cough to try to remove that irritant. Therefore, coughing when you have a cold is more commonly due to the increased mucus in your nose and actually has nothing to do with your lungs.

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This is how the illness works, but what do we do about it? The short and sometimes frustrating answer is nothing. Your body’s immune system is perfectly designed to clear this virus on its own — you just have to give it time to work. The average cold can last seven to 10 days and as long as two weeks in some cases. That is a pretty long time to be sick, but, unfortunately, there is nothing that can speed it up. A common misconception is that antibiotics will help, but antibiotics only work against bacteria, not viruses.

While you may not be able to shorten the illness, there are things you can do. Drinking lots of fluids and using over-the-counter medications can temporarily relieve the cough, sore throat and runny nose. Washing your hands well can also help prevent colds in the first place and keep them from spreading to others. It is also important to be cautious and call your primary-care provider if you develop a fever or are concerned by your symptoms. It never hurts to ask a professional.

During these winter months, it’s rarely a question of if you will get sick, but when.

— Steven Leary

Second-year student

UI Carver College of Medicine