Ugh, you've caught a cold. The cold is the most common
infectious disease in the United States and is responsible for more
school absences than any other illness. About 1 billion colds cause
sniffling, sneezing, and stuffy heads every year.
Most teens get between two and four colds a year. But there are
ways to feel better when you catch one.
What Causes Colds?
Most colds are caused by viruses called
that are in invisible droplets in the air you breathe or on things
you touch. More than 100 different rhinoviruses (the name comes
from "rhin," the Greek word for nose) can infiltrate the
protective lining of the nose and throat. This triggers an immune
system reaction that can make the throat sore, cause a headache,
and make it hard to breathe.
No one knows exactly why people become infected with colds at
certain times. But no matter what you hear, sitting or sleeping in
a draft, not dressing warmly when it's chilly, or going outside
with wet hair will not cause someone to catch a cold.
Air that's dry - indoors or out - can lower resistance to
infection by viruses, though. So can allergies, lack of sleep,
stress, not eating properly, or hanging out with someone who is
Being around people with colds makes it more likely you might
catch one yourself, of course. Rhinoviruses can stay alive as
droplets in the air or on surfaces for as long as 3 hours or more.
If you touch your mouth or nose after touching someone or something
that's been contaminated by one of these viruses, you'll
probably catch a cold (unless you're already immune to the
virus from having been exposed to it before).
People who smoke are more likely to catch colds than people who
don't - and their symptoms will probably be worse, last longer,
and be more likely to lead to bronchitis or even pneumonia.
If you already have a cold, you're more likely to spread it
to others if you don't wash your hands after you cough or
sneeze. Going to school or doing normal activities probably
won't make you feel any worse. But it will increase the
likelihood that your cold will spread to classmates or friends.
How Long Do Colds Last?
Cold symptoms usually appear 2 or 3 days after a person has been
exposed to a source of infection. People are most contagious for
the first 3 or 4 days after the symptoms appear and may be
contagious for up to 3 weeks. Although some colds can linger for as
long as 2 weeks, most clear up within a week.
Can Colds Be Cured With Chicken Soup?
There's no real proof that chicken soup can cure a cold, but
sick people have been swearing by it for more than 800 years. The
best plan is not to worry about whether to feed a cold or starve a
fever. Just eat when you're hungry. And drink plenty of fluids
like water or juice to help replace the extra fluids you lose while
your body is producing a lot of mucus or has a fever.
Whether you feel like sleeping around the clock or just taking
things a bit easier, pay attention to what your body is telling you
when you have a cold. A warm bath or heating pad can soothe aches
and pains, and the steam from a hot shower can help you breathe
more easily. And because you know how miserable you can feel when
you have a cold, protect the people around you by coughing and
sneezing into a disposable tissue and washing your hands frequently
using warm water and soap.
What Kind of Medicine Will Help?
Over-the-counter cold medicines may ease some cold symptoms, but
they can't prevent a person from catching a cold in the first
place. These medicines are intended to make cold symptoms (such as
a stuffy nose or headache) less severe. But they don't actually
help people with colds get better faster.
Some people find that cold medications can cause stomach upset
or make them feel dizzy, tired, or unable to sleep.
Ask your parents (who can consult with a doctor or pharmacist)
what medicine you should take, if any. Most doctors recommend
acetaminophen for aches, pains, and fever. Sometimes antihistamines
and decongestants help to relieve congestion and stuffiness
associated with a cold.
If you have a cold, you
take aspirin (or any medication that contains aspirin) unless your
doctor says so. Use of aspirin by teens with colds or other viral
illness may increase the risk of developing Reye (pronounced:
) syndrome, a rare but serious condition that can be fatal.
Like all viruses, the viruses that cause colds have to run their
course. Getting plenty of rest and drinking lots of fluids can do
as much good as medication in terms of helping someone with a cold
When Should I Go to the Doctor?
Teens who catch colds usually don't get very sick and
don't need medical attention. However, there are some things
you should ask a doctor about if they happen to you:
- If cold symptoms last for more than a week or appear at the
same time every year or whenever you're exposed to pollen,
dust, animals, or some other substance, you could have an
- If you have trouble breathing or wheeze when you catch a
cold, you could have asthma.
- If your symptoms get worse after 3 days or so instead of
better, you could have strep throat, sinusitis, bronchitis, or
some other bacterial infection, especially if you smoke.
You should see your doctor if you think you might have more than
a cold or if you're getting worse instead of getting
Other signs that it's time to call your doctor include:
- coughing that lasts for more than 2-3 weeks
- inability to keep food or liquids down
- increasing headache or facial or throat pain
- severely painful sore throat
- fever of 103Âº Fahrenheit (39.3Âº Celsius) or higher, or a
fever of 102Âº Fahrenheit (38.9Âº Celsius) that lasts for more than
- chest or stomach pain
- swollen glands (lymph nodes)
A doctor won't be able to identify which specific virus is
causing a cold. But if you have a cold, your doctor can examine
your throat and ears and possibly also take a throat culture to
make sure your symptoms aren't a sign of another condition.
Taking a throat culture is a simple procedure that involves
brushing the inside of the throat with a long cotton swab.
Examining the germs that stick to the swab will help determine
whether you have strep throat and need treatment with
If your doctor does prescribe antibiotics, be careful to take
the medication exactly as directed. If you stop taking it too soon
- even if you start feeling better - the infection may not go away
and you can develop other problems.
Can Colds Be Prevented?
Sooner or later everybody catches a cold. But you can strengthen
your immune system's infection-fighting ability by exercising
regularly, eating a balanced diet, and getting enough rest.
Virus particles can travel up to 12 feet through the air when
someone who has a cold coughs or sneezes, so try to keep your
distance from anyone who has a cold. Stay clear of smokers, too:
even secondhand smoke can make people more likely to get sick.
Don't use the same towels or eating utensils as someone else,
and don't drink from anyone else's glass, can, or bottle -
you never know who might be about to come down with a cold and is
already spreading the virus.
Researchers aren't sure whether taking extra zinc or vitamin
C can limit how long cold symptoms last and how severe they become.
But when people take large doses of these every day it can cause
negative side effects. Before you decide to take more than the
recommended daily allowance (RDA) of any vitamin or supplement,
talk to your doctor about it.
Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: October 2006
Originally reviewed by:
Kevin P. Sheahan, MD
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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