Treating the Common Cold

Eleanor Kurtz, MD

In spite of the beautiful fall weather we’ve had in Hampton Roads this October, cold and flu season has officially arrived.  The common cold is a term used to describe a group of viral illnesses that cause upper respiratory symptoms such as sneezing, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore or “scratchy” throat, headache, cough, fevers (more common in children than adults), and a general feeling of being “unwell.”

Symptoms usually begin one to three days after exposure and typically resolve within five to seven days, though symptoms often linger in patients who smoke and those with chronic illnesses.  Patients are usually at their most contagious when their symptoms are most severe, but can remain contagious for up to two weeks, even after all of their symptoms have resolved.

While a person develops immunity to a specific virus after having a cold, there are over 200 subtypes of viruses that can cause cold symptoms.  Most adults suffer through two to three episodes of the common cold each year and children typically have twice as many episodes.

Most cold viruses are spread by direct contact.  Cold viruses can live for several hours on human skin and environmental  surfaces, so good hand washing practices become increasingly important when a close contact comes down with a cold.  While many people report developing cold symptoms after air travel, studies have not shown an increased risk from breathing re-circulated air (such as the air used in commercial airplanes).

Visiting a Doctor for Help Treating a Cold
Many patients go to see their doctor when the common cold strikes and find it frustrating to hear that their physical exam findings are minimal despite the amount of discomfort they are experiencing and that no specific treatment is available.  There are, however, options to help patients work through their symptoms.

Over the counter cold remedies such as  decongestants, antihistamines, acetaminophen, cough syrups, expectorants and saline nasal sprays or rinses are sometimes recommended to alleviate cold symptoms.  Vitamin supplements and herbal remedies have been studied, but have not shown any benefit over placebo. Antibiotics target bacteria and will not impact infections caused by viruses and are therefore not recommended for treatment of the common cold.

However, if symptoms persist or worsen after a week, you should see your doctor as some infections may initially be mistaken for the common cold and some patients may develop sinus or ear infections as a complication of swollen nasal passages after having a cold.

About Dr. Eleanor Kurtz
Eleanor Kurtz, MD, of Bon Secours Medical Associates at Virginia Beach, is an internal medicine physician who earned her medical degree from The Ohio State University College of Medicine in Columbus, Ohio. She completed an internship, as well as a residency in internal medicine, at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Va. A diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine, Dr. Kurtz is a member of the American Medical Association and American College of Physicians. She has a special interest in wound care. Read more blog posts by Dr. Kurtz!

To schedule an appointment with Dr. Kurtz in Virginia Beach please call (757) 305-1797!

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