Bringing sniffles and sneezes and perhaps a sore throat and annoying cough, the common cold catches all of us from time to time.
With kids getting as many as eight colds per year or more, this contagious viral infection of the upper respiratory tract is the most common infectious disease in the United States and the No. 1 reason kids visit the doctor and stay home from school.
Most colds are caused by rhinoviruses that are in invisible droplets in the air we breathe or on things we touch. More than 100 different rhinoviruses can infiltrate the protective lining of the nose and throat, triggering an immune system reaction that can cause a throat sore and headache, and make it hard to breathe through the nose.
Air that's dry — indoors or out — can lower resistance to infection by the viruses that cause colds. And so can being a smoker or being around someone who's smoking. People who smoke are more likely to catch a cold than people who don't — and their symptoms probably will be worse, last longer, and are more likely to lead to bronchitis or even pneumonia.
But despite some old wives' tales, not wearing a jacket or sweater when it's chilly, sitting or sleeping in a draft, and going outside while your hair's wet do not cause colds.
Signs and Symptoms
The first symptoms of a cold are often a tickle in the throat, a runny or stuffy nose, and sneezing. Kids with colds may also have a sore throat, cough, headache, mild fever, fatigue, muscle aches, and loss of appetite. Nasal discharge may change from watery to thick yellow or green.
Colds are most contagious during the first 2 to 4 days after symptoms appear, and may be contagious for up to 3 weeks. Your can catch a cold from person-to-person contact or by breathing in virus particles spread through the air by sneezing or coughing. Touching the mouth or nose after touching skin or another surface contaminated with a rhinovirus can also spread a cold.
Because so many viruses cause them, there isn't a vaccine that can protect against catching colds. But to help prevent them, kids should:
- try to steer clear of anyone who smokes or who has a cold. Virus particles can travel up to 12 feet through the air when someone with a cold coughs or sneezes, and secondhand smoke can make your child more likely to get sick.
- wash their hands thoroughly and frequently, especially after blowing their noses
- cover their noses and mouths when coughing or sneezing (have them sneeze or cough into a shirtsleeve, though, not their hands — this helps prevent the spread of germs)
- not use the same towels or eating utensils as someone who has a cold. They also shouldn't drink from the same glass, can, or bottle as anyone else — you never know who might be about to come down with a cold and is already spreading the virus.
- not pick up other people's used tissues
Researchers aren't sure whether taking extra zinc or vitamin C can limit how long cold symptoms last or how severe they become, but large doses taken every day can cause negative side effects.
The results of most studies on the value of herbal remedies, such as echinacea, are either negative or inconclusive, and few properly designed scientific studies of these treatments have been done in kids.
Talk to your doctor before you decide to give your child any herbal remedy or more than the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of any vitamin or supplement.
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
© 1995-2009 The Nemours Foundation. All rights reserved.
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