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Don't Call it a Comeback – the Common Cold Has Been Here for Years

July 15, 2021
mother showing thermometer to coughing child

It hasn’t been around for quite a while, at least a year and a half since COVID-19 began. But you can’t forget its symptoms – a runny nose, sore throat, headache, fever, hacking cough, and an all-around general feeling of not being well.

It’s the common cold, along with other viruses, that are once again spreading the country after a flu season that was pretty much nonexistent.

Most colds are caused by the rhinovirus, while coronaviruses (not COVID-19), RSV and parainfluenza also cause colds. Also, similar to COVID-19, colds are spread by droplets in the air by coughing and sneezing, and from close personal contact, like touching or shaking hands.

Cold virus never went away

“These viruses never really went away. They were still circulating but didn’t have many hosts to infect because of the same precautions that helped to keep COVID-19 at bay. But now that masks are coming off and there is less social distancing, we are opening ourselves up to contact with these various ‘bugs’ once again,” said Dr. Glenn F. Alli, director of Primary Care at Baystate Health.

Another reason for getting sick – weakened adaptive immunity defenses.

Adaptive immunity develops when a person’s immune system responds to a foreign substance or microorganism, such as after an infection or vaccination. Adaptive immunity involves specialized immune cells and antibodies that attack and destroy foreign invaders and are able to prevent disease in the future by remembering what those substances look like and mounting a new immune response. Adaptive immunity may last for a few weeks or months or for a long time, sometimes for a person’s entire life.

“As in the case of the pandemic, 18 months without an exposure to a viral respiratory pathogen may have weakened the ‘memory’ needed to activate one’s defenses against that particular threat,” said Dr. Alli.

No cure for the common cold

While there is no cure for the common cold – which has been around forever, some say since before the 16th century BCE when its symptoms were described in the Egyptian Ebers papyrus, the oldest existing medical text – there are ways to help prevent infection.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), along with Dr. Alli, recommends:

  • Washing your hands often with soap and water. Wash them for at least 20 seconds, and help young children do the same. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Viruses that cause colds can stay on your hands, and regular handwashing can help protect you from getting sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands. Viruses that cause colds can enter your body this way and make you sick.
  • Staying away from people who are sick. Sick people can spread viruses that cause the common cold through close contact with others.
  • Disinfect frequently touched surfaces, including objects such as toys and doorknobs.

It is summer right now and most colds occur in the fall and winter.

While there is a popular belief that vitamin C can cure the common cold and zinc can shorten its duration, there is conflicting research about their benefits, noted Dr. Alli.

No clinical trials for proof

Despite the fact that manufacturers of over-the-counter “immunity boosters” claim the ingredients in their products – vitamin C, Echinacea, and zinc - will support immunity and shorten the duration of colds and flus, there have been no clinical trials to prove their claims.

“If you do catch a cold, the best advice I can offer is to treat the symptoms with pain and fever reducing medications, get plenty of rest, and drink plenty of fluids,” said Dr. Alli, who noted most colds last anywhere from 7 to 10 days.

Most adults will get 2-3 colds each year, while children will have many more according to the CDC.

“Fortunately it is summer right now and most colds occur in the fall and winter during the colder months when we are spending more time indoors among other people,” said Dr. Alli.

Why no cure?

So, if we can land a rover on Mars and quickly discover a vaccine for COVID-19, why can’t we cure the common cold?

“The common cold is caused by a variety of viruses, and rhinovirus that causes the majority of it has numerous strains. Thus, developing specific antiviral treatment and an effective vaccine has been challenging to protect us against all types of viruses and strains,” said Dr. Armando Paez, chief, Infectious Disease Division at Baystate Health.

While most colds, or even the flu, don’t require a visit to the doctor, there are times when seeing a doctor is beneficial – especially for high-risk individuals such as young children, pregnant women, adults 65 years of age and older, and others with chronic medical conditions.

“A visit to your doctor is recommended if your cold last more than two weeks, if you are experiencing shortness of breath, chest pain, or a fever that persists,” said Dr. Alli.

To make an appointment with a primary care provider at one of Baystate’s many medical practices, browse our provider listing or call 413-794-5412.

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