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cold, common

cold, common, acute viral infection of the mucous membranes of the nose and throat, often involving the sinuses. The typical sore throat, sneezing, and fatigue may be accompanied by body aches, headache, low fever, and chills. The congested and discharging mucous membrane may become a fertile ground for a secondary bacterial invasion that can spread to the larynx, bronchi, lungs, or ears. Uncomplicated infections usually last from three to ten days.

The cold is the most common human ailment. Most adult Americans suffer from one to four colds per year, but children ages one to five—who are the most susceptible—typically may contract as many as eight. Colds are spread by respiratory droplets or by contaminated hands or objects. Although the incidence of colds is higher in winter, exposure to chilling or dampness is considered to be of little significance.

Any one of up to 200 viruses (such as the rhinoviruses, coronaviruses, or respiratory syncytial virus [RSV]) can cause colds, to which it seems almost no one is immune. Infection with a viral strain confers only temporary immunity to that strain. Colds in infants and young children caused by RSV can progress to pneumonia and other complications, especially in those under a year old who were born prematurely or have chronic lung disease; RSV causes an estimated 4,500 deaths yearly in these groups in the United States.

Treatment for the common cold aims at relieving symptoms and keeping the body well-rested, -fed, and -hydrated. Because of the growing problem of drug resistance, doctors are discouraged from prescribing antibiotics (which do not affect viruses) for colds unless secondary bacterial infection makes them necessary. There is some evidence that zinc preparations, when taken within 24 hours of the first cold symptoms, can shorten the duration and moderate the symptoms of an infection, but there is no convincing evidence that vitamin C megadoses can prevent the common cold.

Researchers have reported reduction or prevention of cold symptoms in human tests of an experimental drug against rhinoviruses, which cause nearly half of all colds. The drug acts by imitating a molecule in the body called ICAM-1, to which the rhinovirus attaches to produce colds. As rhinoviruses attach to the decoy molecules instead, the likelihood or severity of infection is decreased.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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