The Evolution of the Common Cold

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (Jan. 15, 2020) – The common cold is the number one reason for lost work and school time throughout the industrialized world. The average adult will get two or three colds each year, while children can go through 5 – 10 cycles. The typical cold starts with sore throat and runny nose, followed by sneezing and coughing. Most people will recover fully within a week or ten days. 

“Numerous viruses cause the common cold, and with a cold comes many bothersome symptoms,” says family medicine physician Anna Menze, MD, with Lutheran Health Physicians. “Colds can vary in intensity from being annoying to making it hard to complete daily activities. The best thing you can do for yourself is to get the most rest possible to give your body a chance to fight the virus!” 

Perhaps the question asked most frequently in primary and urgent care offices across the country is, “Do I have a cold, a sinus infection, or the flu?” While your physician and local urgent care center no doubt can rule out things like the flu and strep throat in minutes with a simple swab test, determining between a cold and sinus infection is trickier – and in many cases, irrelevant. Only a small number of cases involving cold- and flu-like symptoms are bacterial in nature. Therefore, the vast majority of cases will not respond to antibiotics. This leaves most patients with no course of action but to try and get through the virus with minimal pain and suffering. We’ll focus on those efforts here.

  • Manage a fever. A fever is rare with a cold, in both adults and children. One of the best ways to distinguish a cold from a suspected case of flu is by a fever. If you or your child experiences a fever of 101 or higher for more than a day, it’s best to get a flu test just to be safe. Otherwise, acetaminophen is the preferred method for reducing fever – just be VERY mindful of dosing instructions, and don’t take more than one medicine at a time containing acetaminophen. Ibuprofen can also be used, but avoid aspirin and NEVER give it to a child under age 12. 
  • Stop a runny nose/post-nasal drip.  Your sore throat (if not a strep infection) is most likely being caused by nasal discharge dripping down your throat. The best way to dry it up is with antihistamines. Note: can make some people very sleepy, so plan accordingly.
  • Un-clog your nose.  A stuffed nose is a terrible feeling, and can prevent you from sleeping for several nights in a row during a cold. Talk to your doctor or the pharmacist about the best over-the-counter decongestant choice for you, and be cautious not to overuse. 
  • Relieve sinus pressure and pain.  Nasal steroids, both over the counter and prescription, can relieve cold symptoms and seasonal allergies. 
  • Loosen cough or mucus.  If you can’t kick the cough and move the mucus out, try an expectorant to help thin the thick drainage and move it out through nose and mouth. 
  • Reduce coughing.  For many people, the cough is the worst part of a cold. Try an antitussive or another product with dextromethorphan to help suppress the cough and get some sleep.
  • Relieve a sore throat.  Gargle with warm salty water a couple of times per day, and try throat lozenges or an analgesic at bedtime. Monitor your throat for white or yellow spots or severe/increasing pain that may indicate a strep infection. 
  • Get some ZZZZZ’s.  Your immune system needs sleep to fight back. Nighttime over-the-counter products should be used judiciously, but can provide much relief. Be sure to read labels and find products safe for you, especially if you have high blood pressure or other medical conditions, or are taking other products with similar ingredients. 

One of the most confusing parts of diagnosing a cold is the multitude of symptoms. For instance, you may be diagnosed with an inner ear infection, a lower respiratory tract infection, or sinusitis. However, the majority of all of these cases, too, are viral in nature – not bacterial. Thus antibiotics will still be ineffective in treating or shortening the illness.

It’s important, however, to see your physician if your symptoms move beyond the basic ones listed above. A lower respiratory infection can take harbor in the lungs and turn into pneumonia, and sinusitis left untreated can result in a bacterial infection. Your doctor is the best resource to distinguish between a viral and bacterial condition, and to recommend the appropriate course of treatment, if any. 

“While it can be extremely frustrating, there is not a foolproof way to avoid colds altogether,” states Dr. Menze. “Keeping your immune system strong by getting adequate sleep, drinking plenty of water, having a healthy diet, and getting physical activity can help. It is also important to wash your hands frequently, to avoid touching your face with unwashed hands, to encourage those around you to cough and sneeze into their elbow (versus their hands), and to make sure you get your flu shot every year.”  

For the times when the common cold turns into something more complex, it’s important to seek immediate care. Visit https://www.lutheranhealth.net/anytime-anycare to check wait times at any of our urgent care locations or emergency rooms.

The foundation of Lutheran Health Network is an experienced team of more than 7,000 employees working together with the more than 800 physicians who compose its medical staffs. The network’s more than 100 access points in northern Indiana include physician offices, urgent care clinics, outpatient centers and eight hospitals. 


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