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The Common Cold: Symptoms and Treatment

Nandini Koka, MD is the Medical Director for Inova Urgent Care.  Inova offers 11 convenient urgent care locations across Northern Virginia. All centers are open daily – even on weekends – and serve patients of all ages. Select centers in Dulles South, Manassas, Reston, Tysons Corner, and West Springfield offer specialized pediatric services in collaboration with Inova Children’s Hospital.

Sniffles, sneezes, and coughs: A guide to upper respiratory infections

Sniffling, sneezing and coughing are unfortunately some of the most common sounds of winter. At this time of year, it is not unusual for both children and adults to suffer from an upper respiratory infection – also known as the common cold.   

While the fall and winter months yield an increased incidence of upper respiratory infections, they can strike at any time of year. On average, adults will suffer from two to four colds annually. Children will catch six to eight colds per year, with an increased incidence for those who attend daycare. Fortunately, colds become less frequent after six years of age.

sick person huddling under a blanket

Upper respiratory infections are caused by viruses and are responsible for a significant number of visits to the doctor and missed work and/or school days. These viruses affect the membrane lining of the nose and throat.  Although there are over two hundred types of viruses that can cause a cold, the majority of colds are caused by the Rhinovirus.

When the body is exposed to a cold virus, either via air droplets or direct contact with the virus, the foreign virus triggers a reaction from the immune system. The immune response produces symptoms that typically occur two to three days after exposure (incubation period).

Symptoms of upper respiratory infections or “the common cold”:

  • Increased mucus production which causes a runny nose;
  • Increased swelling of the lining of the nose which results in congestion and difficulty breathing;
  • Sneezing from irritation of the nose; and
  • Coughing from the influx of mucus dripping down the throat  

Your primary care or urgent care provider will diagnose an upper respiratory infection based on your symptoms; blood work and tests are usually not needed for the diagnosis.

How do I treat a cold?

Since upper respiratory infections are primarily caused by viruses, antibiotics are not indicated for treatment.  It’s important to remember that unnecessary use of antibiotics can lead to increased bacterial resistance and affect the normal bacterial flora in your gut. This will result in antibiotic associated diarrhea.

Instead, treatment for an upper respiratory infection is supportive and aimed at helping to alleviate symptoms of sore throat, congestion, runny nose, headache and cough. Speak with your healthcare provider about ways to help alleviate symptoms.

Most colds resolve in a week to ten days, but the cough can sometimes last three weeks or longer. A persistent post-viral cough lasting three to eight weeks occurs in approximately 25% of people following an upper respiratory infection.

Other types of respiratory infections that should be differentiated from the common cold include sinusitis, pharyngitis, otitis media, and bronchitis. Typically, a viral upper respiratory infection precedes one of these conditions. Although supportive care is still the mainstay of treatment for these infections, patients should remain alert to the following signs of a more complicated bacterial infection.

Call or visit your doctor or Urgent Care center if you have these symptoms:

  • High fever (> 102 F)
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Coughing up bloody mucus
  • Coughing so hard that vomiting occurs
  • Feeling worse after 5-7 days of symptoms particularly worsening headache, sinus pain and congestion
  • Not improving after 10 days of symptoms

If you experience any of these symptoms, it is important to see your primary care provider or visit your local urgent care center to determine if additional treatment or testing is necessary.  

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For most of us, upper respiratory infections are simply a nuisance.  Prevention is key! Here are a few helpful tips to help keep you and your family healthy during cold season:

  • Frequently wash hands
  • Get adequate rest
  • Increase fluid intake
  • Avoid smoking and second hand smoke
  • Ensure your child is fully immunized
  • Receive your yearly flu vaccine

2 Comments

  1. Benjamin P Gilbert on February 16, 2019 at 6:27 am

    Why isn’t there an Inova urgent care clinic in Dale City/ Woodbridge area?

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