Your Health

Dealing with the common cold

Keep sniffles in check

Common cold

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, November / December 2014

What is the common cold? 

The common cold is an infection of the head and chest caused by a virus. It is a type of upper respiratory infection (URI). It can affect your nose, throat, sinuses, and ears. A cold can also affect the tube that connects your middle ear and throat, and your windpipe, voice box, and airways.

How does it occur?

Over 200 different viruses can cause colds, although the rhinovirus is the most common one. The infection spreads when viruses are passed to others by sneezing, coughing, or personal contact. You may also become infected by handling objects that were touched by someone with a cold and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth. You are more likely to get a cold if:

  • You are emotionally or physically stressed.
  • You are tired.
  • You are not eating enough healthy food.
  • You are a smoker.
  • You are exposed to second-hand smoke.
  • You are living or working in crowded conditions.

People tend to get fewer colds as they get older because they build up immunity to some of the viruses that can cause them.

What are the symptoms?

You usually start having cold symptoms one to three days after contact with the virus. Symptoms may include:

  • Scratchy or sore throat
  • Sneezing, runny or stuffy nose
  • Cough
  • Watery eyes
  • Ear congestion
  • Slight fever (37.2 to 37.8°C)
  • Tiredness
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Thicker and yellow discharge from your nose is common with colds. Generally with colds, you will not get a high fever as seen with other viral infections.   

How is it diagnosed?

Colds can usually be diagnosed from your symptoms. -care provider may need to examine you to rule out other serious infections, such as strep throat and sinusitis.

Common colds are different from influenza (flu), even though both are caused by viruses. Influenza usually develops more suddenly than a cold. When you have the flu, you develop fever and muscle aches within a few hours, even as few as one or two hours. The symptoms of a cold develop more slowly and are usually milder.

How is it treated?

There are no medicines that cure a cold. You can treat your symptoms with non-prescription medicines such as aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, nose drops or sprays, throat lozenges, and decongestants. Prolonged use of decongestant sprays and drops is not recommended as it can cause rebound inflammation of the mucous membranes.

Check with your health-care provider before you take any of these drugs if you are already taking other medicines. Staying hydrated is also important for symptom relief.

There is no conclusive scientific evidence that over-the-counter (OTC) remedies such as vitamin C, Echinacea and Zinc are effective in treating cold symptoms. Studies are ongoing.

Children under 18 years of age should not take aspirin or products containing salicylate (such as Pepto-Bismol) because of the risk of Reye’s syndrome, unless recommended by a health-care provider.

The use of over-the-counter cold remedies in children less than six years is not advised by Health Canada. Vicks VapoRub, although widely available to the public, is not to be used in children under the age of two due to the camphor toxicity effects in young children, which can cause liver damage even when applied to the skin. It should not be used in humidifiers, especially if heated, as this may result in splattering and result in burns. Also, menthol fumes can make coughs worse. They definitely can worsen an asthma attack. Also, when they are applied to the chest of a young child, they block sweat glands and can cause a secondary heat rash in this area.

How long will the effects last?

Colds usually last one to two weeks. Sometimes you may get a bacterial infection after a cold, such as an ear infection or sinus infection.

How can I take care of myself?

  • Get lots of rest.
  • Drink lots of fluids, such as water, fruit juice, tea, and soda.
  • Try chicken soup. There is scientific evidence that it does help relieve cold symptoms.
  • Use a humidifier to increase air moisture, especially in your bedroom.
  • Use nose drops to relieve nasal congestion. You can buy nose drops or make your own. To make a solution for nose drops, add 5 ml (1 teaspoon) of salt to 500 ml (2 cups) of water.
  • Soothe your throat. Gargling with salt water can temporarily soothe a sore throat. Use 1.5 to 2.5 ml (¼ to ½ teaspoon) of salt dissolved in 250 ml (1 cup) of water.

Call -care provider if you have any of the following symptoms:


  • Trouble breathing
  • Swollen, tender lymph nodes (glands) in your neck 
  • Chest pain
  • White or yellow spots on your tonsils or throat
  • A cough that gets worse or becomes painful
  • Temperature of 38.9° C (102° F) or higher that lasts more than two days
  • Shaking chills
  • Headache that lasts several days
  • Confusion
  • Blue or gray lips, skin, or nails
  • Severe sinus pain


  • Children three months and younger with any fever should see their health-care provider
  • Signs of dehydration
  • Fever for more than three days in a child older than two years of age
  • Fever for more than 24 hours for a child less than two years of age
  • Severe headache
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Ear pain
  • Persistent cough

What can be done to help prevent the spread of colds?

The following suggestions may help prevent the spread of your cold to others: 

  • Turn away from others and use tissues when you cough or sneeze.
  • Wash your hands after coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose.
  • Wash your hands often and especially before touching food, dishes, glasses, silverware, or napkins.
  • Use paper cups and paper towels in bathrooms.
  • Don’t let your nose or mouth touch public telephones or drinking fountains.
  • Don’t share food or eating utensils with others.
  • Avoid close contact with others for the first two to four days.

To lower your risk of catching a cold:

  • Avoid close contact with people who have a cold.
  • Keep your hands away from your nose and mouth.
  • Wash your hands often, especially after coming in contact with someone who has a cold.
  • Eat healthy foods, especially fruits with vitamin C, such as oranges.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Do not smoke.

Audra Kolesar is a registered nurse and Manager with Health Links - Info Santé, the Winnipeg Health Region’s telephone health information service.

The information for this column is provided by Health Links - Info Santé. It is intended to be informative and educational and is not a replacement for professional medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a health-care professional. You can access health information from a registered nurse 24 hours a day, seven days a week by calling Health Links - Info Santé.

Call 204-788-8200 or toll-free 1-888-315-9257.


About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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