Common cold causes

Dear Alice,

What causes the common cold?

Dear Reader,

A virus — actually, about 200 different viruses — causes the common cold. Rhinoviruses are the most common type of virus to cause a cold, and there are more than 110 that have been identified. They tend to actively spread in the early fall, spring, and summer but rarely cause serious diseases. Coronaviruses, on the other hand, cause a large percentage of adult colds and can potentially induce serious illness. While four of them can cause more mild illness and cold-like symptoms, the other three (SARS, MERS, and COVID-19) can cause much more serious disease, including death. In addition, other virus types known to induce the common cold include adenoviruses, coxsackieviruses, echoviruses, metapneumoviruses, orthomyxoviruses (influenza), paramyxoviruses (parainfluenza), respiratory syncytial virus, and enteroviruses. Though these viruses often produce the common cold in adults, they have the potential to induce more serious disease, especially in children. Unfortunately, many adult colds remain unidentified. Therefore, it’s best to take measures to avoid contracting any virus and to take care of yourself if or when you do.

Adults contract an average of two to four colds per year, while children may contract more (approximately six to ten). A person can contract viruses through air droplets produced when someone who is sick coughs, sneezes, or even talks. Many viruses also spread by directly touching or sharing objects with someone who is sick. Rhinoviruses, for example, can live up to three hours on the skin or surfaces. The virus can then enter your body through the nose, eyes, or mouth. Once inside your body, viruses act by infecting your healthy cells and using those cells' reproductive machinery to make more viruses. At some point, the cells burst and die — letting all the new little viruses loose to infect even more of the host's cells. The destruction of cells lining the throat and respiratory tract causes the sore throat, cough, and runny nose characteristic of a cold. Fever, aches, and fatigue actually result from the body's immune response to the virus.

Contrary to popular belief, cold weather doesn’t cause the common cold. While incidences do increase as the weather gets colder, this is usually because schools are in session and people are gathering indoors, increasing the chances that viruses will spread from person to person. To avoid catching a cold, you may consider these precautionary steps:

  • Wash your hands often.
  • Sanitize shared surfaces with a virus-killing disinfectant.
  • Avoid sharing cups, utensils, plates, etc.
  • Stay away from people who are sick — a person is most likely to transmit rhinoviruses during their second to fourth day of infection.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Take care of yourself with balanced nutrition, physical activity, and rest.

Unfortunately, there is no vaccine or medication to cure the common cold. Most people recover from a cold in about seven to ten days. This can vary, however, if you have a weakened immune system, asthma, or a respiratory condition such as bronchitis. It's wise to seek medical attention if your cold symptoms lasts for more than ten days or if you feel as though your symptoms are more severe than usual. The common cold and flu are often hard to differentiate. In general, the flu has more intense symptoms. Nevertheless, having even a mild cold is no fun. You may find relief from your cold symptoms by getting rest, drinking plenty of fluids, and taking some over-the-counter medications such as decongestants to relieve your symptoms. You can check out the Go Ask Alice! Colds & Flu archives for more "cold," hard facts.  

Last updated Feb 04, 2022
Originally published Oct 16, 1998

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