Friday, December 2, 2005
by James L. Gardner, M.D.
Common colds are the most frequently acquired acute illnesses in the United States and throughout the industrialized world. Though the infection is self-limited, the burden in terms of lost productivity and expense is high. The common cold has been estimated to cost more that $3.5 billion per year in the United States alone. Forty percent of all time lost from jobs among those employed is due to colds, and annual school absences are as high as 23 million days.
What we all know as the common cold is actually a constellation of symptoms caused by a large number of different viruses. Rhinoviruses, for example, are among the most common viruses to cause a cold, but there are more than 100 different varieties of these viruses. This explains why people can get colds over and over again. The symptoms are usually the same, but the virus causing the cold is generally different.
Symptoms of the common cold usually include nasal congestion, runny nose, and sneezing. A sore throat may be present on the first day but usually disappears while nasal symptoms become more prominent. If cough occurs, it generally develops on about the fourth or fifth day of symptoms when nasal symptoms are resolving.
There are measures that may be at least partially effective in reducing the transmission of colds in a particular environment. For example, frequent hand washing can help decrease hand-to-hand transmission. Proper disposal of nasal secretions is certainly recommended. Using a disinfectant that kills viruses (such as phenol/alcohol, the active ingredient in Lysol) to clean surfaces that an infected person may have touched may help decrease transmission via this route.
A number of other products, including zinc, vitamin C, and herbal products such as Echinacea, have been advocated for use in the treatment or prevention of the common cold. None have been proven to be effective.
Wash your hands regularly, don't cough on your roommate, and take your vitamins.