For most people, catching the common cold is a common part of winter. Children have six to 10 colds a year; adults get two to four. Although colds cannot be prevented -- or cured -- you can take precautions to reduce the chance of infection.
What is a cold?
A cold is a viral infection that affects the mucus in the lining of the nose and throat. A cold can last from a few days to a few weeks. Five types of viruses can cause colds, but about a third of all colds are caused by the rhinovirus ("rhin" is Greek for "nose"); there are more than 200 varieties of rhinovirus. Because so many viruses can cause a cold, there probably will never be a vaccine to prevent people from catching one.
"You really just have to wait out the cold, drink plenty of liquids and rest as much as possible," says Linda Ford, M.D., past president of the American Lung Association (ALA). "An over-the-counter antihistamine/decongestant can reduce nasal congestion and clear up runny noses, but only the body's own defense system can cure a cold."
Dr. Ford adds: "There's no way to completely prevent someone from catching a cold, but there are some basic steps that can be taken to help people avoid getting sick."
How to protect yourself
The ALA offers the following tips for avoiding the common cold:
Wash your hands often or use alcohol-based hand cleaners, particularly if someone in your home has a cold or when you've been in public places. The cold virus is transmitted by person-to-person contact: For instance, someone with a cold rubs his nose then touches your hand.
Keep your hands away from your eyes and nose. As soon as you touch your nose, you're infected.
Don't share drinking glasses or eating utensils with someone who has a cold.
Encourage children to wash their hands and to avoid putting their fingers or toys in their mouths.
Avoid exposing infants to people with colds and crowded public areas, as they are more likely to experience complications than older children and adults.