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Atchoo! It’s that time of year again – the common cold

With more recent news about the problems of overuse of antibiotics, we thought it was worthwhile revisiting the basic information about the common cold; something that is not helped by antibiotics.

Colds are one of the most common infections; children catch them regularly throughout the year and even adults usually have one or two colds every year.

The word cold really means the symptoms a person suffers when their body has been infected by a virus - usually sneezing, a runny or blocked nose and sometimes additional symptoms such as a mild headache or fever and perhaps a sore throat.

Why colds are so ubiquitous is because they are caused by a wide range of viruses – in fact there are more than 200 different viruses that can bring on the cold symptoms. The most common are rhinoviruses, coronaviruses and adenoviruses, but the problem is that even if your body managed to develop strong immunity to one of these types, the following week you might well be exposed to a different virus and – hey presto – you have another cold!

Colds can be spread through sneezing which can cause airborne droplets, but interestingly it is more common for colds to be spread through direct contact with an infected person. The cold virus can be on fingers that can transfer the virus to door handles or tables or any object. If a person picks up one of these viruses and then touches their own nose or eyes, it will thrive.

The virus particles can travel and then can stick to the adenoids at the back of the throat, where they begin to reproduce. In a very short time, perhaps just eight hours, a new virus will start releasing additional new virus particles.

The body will then begin to react, releasing chemicals to make the blood vessels leaky and to increase the work of the mucous glands. In a very short time, the nasal passages will begin to fill up with mucous.

Although it all begins rapidly, colds actually take around two days or more to reach their peak. Symptoms can then reduce quickly but can persist for well over a week in some cases.

It is worth noting that flu is a very different problem, usually causing a lot more severe symptoms than a cold - symptoms such as a high fever, shivering, aching muscles and a real feeling of being unwell are associated with flu rather than a cold.

Surprisingly, during our lifetime, there has been no breakthrough in finding a cure for the common cold. Considering the incredible advances made in so many medical fields, the cold is proving to be a stubborn problem.

Antibiotics can’t work against viruses such as a cold virus, they are used against bacterial infections which are different. This difference is quite interesting but also complex. Viruses generally invade their host’s cells and then alter the cell so that it begins reproducing the virus. Bacteria, on the other hand, are self contained in that they can grow and multiply by themselves. They simply harness the host cell’s machinery to help in the reproduction process of the bacteria.

This is why doctors won’t prescribe antibiotics for colds. The traditional treatments of drinking enough fluid, using vapour rubs or decongestant medication, taking cough mixtures for coughs or simple analgesia such as paracetamol or ibuprofen for any pain and fever, are really the best treatments for a cold. There are many over the counter treatments that are available now to help alleviate the unpleasant symptoms of a cold.

Plus, of course, you want to stop passing on the virus. You will be at your most contagious during the first three days of a cold, so during this time ensure you wash your hands frequently, don’t leave wet tissues around, and avoid close contact with other people.

However, even though people today do try and be more careful , nevertheless most of us will suffer from at least one cold this winter. No wonder it is called the “common” cold.

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