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The Common Cold: Your questions and “cures”

Winter season can be a rough one.  And getting a flu vaccine, albeit brilliant, will still not protect you against the common cold.  Since there are many questions regarding how to get and “cure” a cold, lets get the record straight.


What truly is a “cold”?

A cold, simply put, is a contagious infection that inflames the respiratory tree.  You pick it up, then you feel poorly and subsequently while you’re down,  you can make others sick as well.


What are the symptoms of a cold?

These include:




fatigue – mild

malaise (overall feeling of not being up to par)

sore throat

dry throat

fever – low grade

muscle aches – mild

headache – mild

and sometimes pink eye


What causes a cold?

Almost exclusively, its caused by a virus. I say “almost” as some previous studies have found a slight increase in antibodies to bacteria, but for the most part, we believe 99.9% are caused by viruses.  This is why antibiotics do not help fight the cold.

Hundreds of different viruses can cause the common cold.  These include:

Rhinovirus (most common – 50% + of the cases)




Respiratory Syncytial Virus

Parainfluenza virus

and more.



What’s the difference between a “cold” and the “flu”?

Generally speaking, the cold is more mild.  The symptoms are less severe as those with a cold and rarely it leads to death.  Flu symptoms include many of the same as the common cold but more severe such as high fever, body aches, sore throat, headache, and fatigue. The following breaks down many common flu questions:


How long should a cold last?

Colds can last anywhere between 7 – 10 days. It’s self-limited so will go away usually on its own.


How dangerous can a cold be?

Unlike the flu, we rarely hear of a cold causing major hospitalization or death. However, colds can eventually, if not resolve, or put one at risk for a secondary bacterial infection, lead to pneumonia, asthma attack, sinus infection, ear infection and worsen COPD, emphysema.


How long does it take symptoms to show?

It can take 2-3 days from exposure for symptoms to show. 25% of individuals may never come down with symptoms at all.  However, we are still contagious even during this asymptomatic period.


How do I prevent getting a cold?

  1. Avoid those who are sick.  Colds are spread by “droplet transmission” so stay away from individuals who are coughing, sneezing or spitting.
  2. Good hand washing. We can’t see what we pick up from touching door handles, desks, keyboards, etc. so make sure you frequently wash your hands with soap and water and avoid touching your face when not necessary.
  3. Wipe down things you frequently touch.  These include your cell phone, TV remote, refrigerator door, microwave button, coffee mug, steering wheel, seat belt, keyboard, computer button, computer screen, tablet, etc.
  4. Eat healthy. Make sure you have a balanced diet including fruits and vegetables
  5. Stay rested.
  6. Don’t let your guard down. During the winter months we may forget our jacket, drink too much, eat poorly and this vulnerable state attracts all sorts of pathogens who are waiting for your immune system to drop so they can take advantage.
  7. Avoid stress. Not too easy, but find your stressors and try to avoid or handle them.


How can I “cure” my cold?

Unfortunately there are no cures for the common cold.  Its a virus that will self-limit and eventually die.  Your week long bout with one, however, can be lessened with the following tips:

  1. Hydrate – Make sure you keep your fluids up.  When you sneeze, cough, have a fever, you lose valuable water.  Make sure your replace this fluid loss often.
  2. Rest – your body needs to rest when its sick. Listen to it and get the extra sleep you need.
  3. Take off work – the less stress and more rest is a necessity.  Easier said than done, I know, but you should’t make others around you sick anyhow, so take some time off.
  4. Blow your nose – the virus can set up shop in your nasal passages, so take it and the mucous on a tissue ride to the garbage.  Much of the virus has spread at this stage but at least you’re cleaning up some of their camps.
  5. Steam – holding your head over steam, or taking a steam shower, enhances your breathing and increases blood flow which can speed up the demise of a cold.
  6. Gargle – as with #4, the virus that settles on the back of the throat can be removed with some good gargles and help you feel better.
  7. Zinc – be cautious however.  Lozenges have proven safer than the nasal sprays that back on 2009 were found to affect sense of smell.  Zinc, however, needs to be taken early on in the cold to help prevent viral replication.
  8. Chicken soup – my favorite.  The heat helps sooth the throat and if made correctly has tons of vitamins and amino acids that can help fight colds.  Read more here:


Daliah Wachs, MD, FAAFP is a nationally syndicated radio personality on GCN Network and Board Certified Family Physician

Medical Spanish in under 100 minutes!  Makes a great gift!




Nationally Syndicated Radio Host, Board Certified Family Medicine Physician, Assistant Professor Touro University Nevada

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