In the colder months, colds and other respiratory diseases become common, and doubts may arise about the symptoms that distinguish them and how we should act in each situation. Before opting for treatments, which are not always validated, we should first learn about these common diseases and know what to do to prevent and relieve their symptoms.
What is a cold?
A cold is a mild infection of the upper respiratory tract, namely the nose, throat, and ears. It can be caused by more than 200 types of respiratory viruses (the most common being rhinovirus) and is very common, predominantly in children. Although symptoms are usually mild, it is one of the main causes of doctor visits and school and work absenteeism.
What are the symptoms of a cold?
The symptoms of a cold are usually congestion and runny nose, itchy nose, sneezing, sore throat, cough, headache and low-grade fever. These symptoms are usually self-limiting, i.e., they resolve spontaneously without the need for specific medication. Since a cold compromises the immune system, if a person suffers from a respiratory disease, such as asthma or chronic bronchitis, these can worsen with a cold.
How to distinguish a cold from other respiratory diseases?
In this day and age, it can be difficult to distinguish between a simple cold and other respiratory illnesses such as the flu or even SARS-CoV 2 infection, however, they are different illnesses in some respects.
Colds are common at all ages but particularly in children, who may have 6-8 colds per year. Influenza and COVID-19 are usually more severe in older people and in people with more chronic illnesses.
The cold and flu occur more often in the fall and winter months, rather than year-round as they do in COVID-19.
Unlike the cold, where symptoms are usually mild, in the flu the symptoms include headaches, muscle aches, general malaise, and high fevers, which often prevent a person from carrying out their daily activities. COVID-19 may appear without symptoms, or with mild to moderate symptoms, including fever, cough, fatigue, body aches, change or loss of smell and/or taste, among various other symptoms.
How to prevent a cold?
Being a respiratory disease and transmitted by droplets in the air, preventing colds is done in the same way as for the flu or COVID-19, namely through hand hygiene, breathing etiquette (sneezing or coughing directly into a handkerchief or your arm), the use of masks, and social distancing. Vitamin C may also help in its prevention.
How can cold symptoms be alleviated?
There is no cure for a cold, treatment consists of 1) improving symptoms and 2) fighting the virus. Rest is essential, and it is normal to feel the need to sleep more hours than usual. Increased water intake is essential to relieve symptoms. You should avoid alcohol and caffeine during this period. In case of pain or fever, you should use paracetamol. The use of nasal decongestants helps to clear the nasal airways, and gargling with salt water (½ teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water) may relieve throat discomfort.
Antivirals are available for the treatment of influenza, but they should be used only in cases of severe infection requiring hospitalization. There are no antivirals available for the treatment of the cold.
As with other viral illnesses, antibiotics will have no effect on its treatment. Their use is recommended only in situations where bacterial over-infection is suspected, which occurs more often in the flu than in the cold.
There are seasonal flu shots and a vaccination plan for COVID-19, but not against colds.
When to seek help from your attending physician?
Usually observation by your attending physician is not required for a cold, however you should be observed in the presence of the following signs:
– Symptoms that do not improve after 7 days;
– High fever (over 38.5°C) for more than 3 days and that does not improve with paracetamol or ibuprofen;
– Fever returns after a period without fever;
– Mild shortness of breath;
– Wheezing or “wheezing” in breathing;
– Sore throat or severe headache.
It may be important to contact your treating physician if:
– you have a chronic medical illness – for example, asthma, bronchitis, or diabetes;
– you have a depressed immune system – for example, due to chemotherapy or HIV;
– you are pregnant.
When to seek emergency service?
An adult should go to an emergency room in the following cases:
– Severe chest, back, or stomach pain;
– Severe shortness of breath;
– Dizziness or lightheadedness.
In children, you should go to an emergency room if you notice:
– Major change in general condition, with excessive irritation or prostration;
– Chest pain, very rapid breathing or “dimpling” in the chest while breathing;
– Fever accompanied by purple lips, fingers, or fingernails.
An article by André Cochofel, MD, a specialist in General Medicine at CUF Sintra Hospital.