The all Too Common Cold

Do you remember the scene in Reality Bites where Winona Ryder’s character is on an interview and can’t come up with the definition of irony?  (If you ask me, this was the least of her problems.  Her biggest mistake was ditching Ben Stiller for Ethan Hawke.  She would have never tired of laughing but she probably quickly tired of dark and brooding.)  I have the advantage of dictionary.com and looked up “irony” today.  I was thinking that it was pretty ironic that I am blogging about colds this week and that I woke up with a whopper of a head cold yesterday.  Turns out, it isn’t ironic.  It just sucks.  It also speaks volumes about strength of mind over matter as, if you read last week, you may remember that my head was pounding the whole time I was writing about headaches.  Maybe I should write about winning the lottery or at least a 50/50 at the church or something.
So, I am now unfortunately reminded about how annoying colds can be.  Not bad enough to curl up in bed and milk it, but bad enough to make one choose tea and soup over wine and chocolate.  They are bad and boring, kind of like America’s Next Top Model.

1.  What is a cold? A cold is a viral infection of your upper respiratory tract, including your nose, throat and sinuses.  Symptoms include runny nose, cough, sneezing, watery eyes and congestion.  Children and the elderly are more susceptible but everyone can expect a few colds each year.  Colds are more common in the fall and winter but can happen all year round.

2.  How do you get a cold? The virus has to enter your mouth or nose and it does so via the air when someone coughs or sneezes or via contact.  You pick up germs on your hands and then you touch your face and poof … kleenex city, baby.

3.  Why can’t we cure a cold? Over 100 (some sources say 200) different viruses cause colds or URIs (Upper Respiratory Infections).  Antibiotics don’t work on viruses and anti-virals are designed to work on a specific virus which makes targeting the cause of a cold nearly impossible — at least for now.

4.  Is a cold dangerous? Not really.  Most colds resolve in a few days to a week but a cold can turn into something worse which is why you should try to avoid them or limit their duration.  (see #5)  The congestion associated with a cold can become a petri dish for a more severe infection.  Kids with a cold are more likely to get a bacterial ear infection.  During childhood, the ear canal is horizontal (perpendicular to the ground) which prevents it from draining effectively.  Mucous sitting in that area is a breeding ground for bacteria.  The same is true of your sinuses which is why a sinus infection often follows a cold.  A cold can also set you up for bronchitis or pneumonia.  If your cold lasts longer than a week, if your symptoms seem to be worsening or if you develop a high fever, see your doctor.  Your cold may not just be a cold anymore.

5.  How can you treat a cold? As said, there is no cure for the common cold, but there are treatments.  The most important thing to do when you are getting a cold is to recognize that you are getting one.  When you get that mild headache and sore throat, don’t ignore it.  You need to boost your immune system so that it can take care of business.  Load up on rest, fluids and vitamin C.  A normal multivitamin has about 60mg of vitamin C.  You can supplement that to about 1000 mg daily.  Do not exceed 2000mg a day and you shouldn’t need increased doses chronically.  Just try to increase your intake when you need it.  The jury is out on Echinacea but there is some evidence that it is beneficial in the early stages of a cold.  I have been loving Zicam which you can buy in the drug store and should be taken at the first sign of illness.
There is benefit to over the counter cold medicines.  Anything that decreases congestion can not only make you feel better, it can decrease the risk of the cold lingering or getting worse.  Look for non-sedating medications for the day but be warned that they may make you feel jittery.  Mucinex D is one of my favorites.  Nasal sprays can be very effective but many, like Afrin, can only be used for three days — no more.  When used for longer periods of time, you run the risk of getting rebound congestion.
Then there are the old wives tales.  Don’t scoff (I can feel you scoffing).  There is a lot of benefit in simple, at home, cold remedies especially those that decrease congestion.  Hold hot tea and breath in the steam.  Take hot showers.  Dress warmly and sweat some of it out.  Watch out for Grandma’s chicken soup though.  Most soups are made with a lot of salt and can be dehydrating which you do not want when you have a cold.  Baby your cold enough to give yourself a chance to heal but not so much that you end up in bed for a week.  Sometimes just getting out of bed and getting on with it will make you feel better.  Or, as I will be doing tonight, you can use it as an excuse to curl up and complain.

Children under the age of two should not be given cold medications.  The FDA is studying the safety of cold medications for older children.  For the time being, I’d avoid them if you can.
Tomorrow:  join me for a brief discussion of the flu vaccine.  It deserves more than a day but it will have to be happy with what it gets.

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