The common cold is not actually one disease, but a group of symptoms that can be caused by many different kinds of viruses. The most common and well-known virus type that causes cold symptoms is called rhinovirus. The most common effect of rhinovirus infection is the familiar group of cold symptoms, but rhinovirus can also cause some other problems such as ear infections and pneumonia in rare cases. Other viruses can also cause cold symptoms, including RSV, parainfluenza and coronavirus. It is often difficult to tell exactly which virus is causing someone’s cold symptoms, because some viruses are not as easily cultured in the lab as bacteria or even other types of viruses.
When a viral respiratory infection does occur, the typical cold symptoms that result are usually extremely annoying but not debilitating. Oddly enough, many cold viruses, especially rhinovirus, do not replicate as well inside of the body because the normal body temperature is above its optimum temperature for replication. Cold viruses proliferate better in the nasal cavity, where it is slightly cooler, and thus most of the symptoms of a cold are experienced in the upper respiratory tract. Common cold symptoms include: sneezing, runny nose, coughing, nasal congestion, sore throat, itching in the throat, eye watering, fatigue, slightly increased temperature, achiness and sinus headache.
Fatigue, headache and muscle aches caused by the common cold are often noticeable, but not as severe as they can be with many other illnesses, such as the flu. A person may feel generally “blah” and need to rest more than usual, but colds usually don’t prevent someone from most daily functions. Symptoms of a cold usually become noticeable a few days after a person is infected with a respiratory virus due to replication of the virus within the nasal cavity. Some of the symptoms of a cold, such as frequent sneezing, actually serve to transmit the virus to other people via respiratory droplets. Others are caused by the virus replicating or the immune system trying to fight the virus off. Some types of cold viruses, like RSV, cause mild cold symptoms in adults, but can cause more severe respiratory problems, such as viral pneumonia, in infants and young children.
Colds are usually considered a seasonal illness because they are more common in the winter months. However, it is possible to contract a cold any time of year, including during the summer. In fact, summer colds are fairly common, because rhinoviruses can easily infect people during the warmer times of the year and they are one of the most common cold culprits. Also, enteroviruses can cause colds during the summer months. Summer colds are often worse than winter colds in symptoms, and enteroviruses are often to blame for this. Summer colds may even last longer than winter colds, and it is more likely that a person will suffer from a summer cold, think that they have recovered from the infection and then start to suffer symptoms again in a few days.
Summer colds may be confused with seasonal allergy symptoms. The most common type of allergy in the summer months is allergic rhinitis due to ragweed pollen. Seasonal allergies have similar symptoms to the common cold, except they may last longer because allergies are not self-limiting like a cold is. Colds also tend to cause a lot more sneezing than seasonal allergies, and the mucus produced with a cold tends to be yellow or greenish in color, while the nasal discharge produced due to allergies tends to be colorless. Distinguishing between colds and seasonal allergies is important for relief of symptoms.
Summer colds may be unexpected and particularly annoying, but they are generally dealt with in the same manner as winter colds are. Medical treatment is not usually necessary for colds. If a person goes to the doctor with cold symptoms, some doctors may prescribe an antibiotic, but this is useless and potentially harmful because of the problem with antibiotic resistance of diseases. Relief from colds in both the winter and summer months is symptomatic and may involve over-the-counter medications and home remedies. For example, over-the-counter cough syrup can control cough. Cough drops or throat lozenges can soothe a sore throat. A solution of salt and water made at home can also be used for a sore throat; this solution should not be swallowed, but used as a rinse. Over-the-counter medications are also available to help with nasal congestion, runny nose, and other cold symptoms. Many medications are available to treat multiple cold symptoms at once. Be careful not to take more than one medication with the same ingredients, and follow dosage instructions carefully. If you have any questions about over-the-counter medications for cold symptoms, ask the pharmacist at the drug store for more information or call your doctor.