The common cold is likely the most easily recognized illness. Symptoms include a runny nose, sore throat, itchy eyes and low-grade fever. The illness is usually mild, lasting one to two weeks and requires nothing more than supportive care at home. However, while mild, it often results in days of lost work, lost productivity and lost income.
The common cold is the leading cause of doctor visits, and school children missing more than a million school days each year due to colds. Some estimates are that 1 billion colds occur each year and children may have between six and 10 colds each year and the average adult suffers between two and four each year.
Majority of colds appear to occur during the rainy and cold months. In the past, seasonal variations have been attributed to staying indoors during cold weather, lower vitamin D levels from lack of sunshine and close quarters with others who may be ill.
Growing up, your mom may have told you to stay warm and out of the cold to stay healthy. You may have dismissed this advice as an old wives’ tale, as colds are caused by viruses and not by the weather. However, recent research has demonstrated that while viruses trigger your symptoms, cold weather has a significant impact on whether you catch a cold.
A cold passes through direct physical contact with one of nearly 200 viruses that can trigger symptoms. Someone who has a cold can pass it to you by touching your hand, sneezing near your face, or through contact with their body where the cold virus has been sprayed with a cough or sneeze. You may also acquire the virus after touching a door handle, computer keyboard or utensil where the cold virus has been deposited and then touching your face or nose.
Once inside, the virus attaches itself to the lining of your throat or nose, triggering your body’s immune system to send white blood cells. If you’ve built antibodies to this virus in the past, the fight doesn’t last long. However, if the virus is new, your body sends reinforcements to fight, inflaming your nose and throat. With so much of your body’s resources aimed at fighting the cold, you are left feeling tired and miserable. You may have noticed that some people get more colds than others, or people you’re with get sick when you don’t.
There are several factors that increase your potential risk for a cold, including:
Season: The cold virus is spread more easily during cold weather months when many spend hours indoors, placing you in close proximity to those who are ill. Dry air in the cold months may dry your mucous membranes, making the symptoms of a cold much worse.
Age: The immune system in children younger than 6 is still developing and they have not yet developed resistance to many viruses. These factors increase their risk of developing a cold.
Weakened immune system: While children’s immune systems are developing, others may have compromised immune systems, or other chronic illnesses or nutritional deficiencies. Lack of sleep and psychological stressors are two common factors that may weaken your immune system.
Smoking: In a study of 391 people intentionally exposed to one of five cold viruses, researchers found those who smoked had a far greater risk of developing a cold than nonsmokers, and had a greater risk of developing subsequent infections. They concluded smoking increased your susceptibility to developing a cold.
Exposure: If you are in a situation where others are in close contacts, such as a school, daycare or airplane, your risk for developing cold increases.
Cold weather not only drives people indoors where exposure to those who are already ill increases, but the temperature may also increase your overall risk. Although the name implies temperature has something to do with an increased risk, researchers recently discovered cold temperature weakens your first line of immune defense in your nose.
Other viruses, such as the influenza virus, begin to replicate and grow further into your lungs, specializing where temperatures are higher than your nose. These viruses carry genetic material that helps jam the early warning system your cells use to fight infections. Scientists have also discovered specific strains of rhinovirus can successfully replicate further into your lungs and have been linked to asthmatic attacks in children.
These new findings further suggest that your body develops the fever to boost the effectiveness of your immune system to fight bacterial and viral invaders. It is important to explore how higher and lower body temperatures may affect your immune system and how you are able to fight infections.
A fever is a substantial difference from your normal temperature of 98.6 Fahrenheit (F), more than 1 degree higher or lower. Your body normally fluctuates between 97.6 F in the early morning hours and as high as 99.6 F in the late afternoon. Body temperature may also vary between those taken orally, under the armpit or rectally, as the internal temperature in the rectum is usually higher than skin temperature taken under the tongue or armpit.
The presence of a fever helps support your immune system’s fight against invaders or may be triggered by an environmental factor such as heat stroke, drug abuse or alcohol withdrawal. Although effective in helping the body fight infections, sometimes a fever may go too high.
Internal temperatures greater than 105 F threaten the integrity and function of proteins necessary for life. Thus, while it may be beneficial not to treat low-grade fevers, it is imperative you seek medical care when a fever climbs to 104 F, before it can reach lethal heat.
Vitamins C and D are intimately involved in the functioning of your immune system. Thus, maintaining adequate levels of these vitamins may help prevent a cold and likely will help shorten your cold. Research supports the use of vitamin C during a common cold to reduce the length of symptoms and regular supplementation, especially during cold season, consistently reduced the duration of your cold.
People with higher blood levels of vitamin C also have a lower risk of death from all causes. Typically, the higher the dose you take the better the results during a cold. However, there are limitations when taking oral vitamin C, as it can cause loose bowels.
Kiwi fruits are exceptionally high in vitamin C, along with vitamin E, folate, polyphenols, and carotenoids. Research published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that a kiwifruit-packed diet reduced the duration and severity of upper respiratory tract infections symptoms in older individuals. Other foods high in vitamin C include citrus fruits, red bell peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, papaya, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes.
Suboptimal levels of vitamin D also increase your risk of developing symptoms. Vitamin D is actually a steroid hormone with powerful antimicrobial actions involved in producing 200 to 300 peptides in your body responsible for fighting bacteria, viruses and fungi. The evidence is clear that the closer your vitamin D levels are to optimal levels, the lower your risk of developing a cold or the flu.
Your best source is sensible sun exposure. If this is not an option where you live, using an oral vitamin D3 supplement is advisable. Just remember that with high-dose vitamin D3 supplementation you need to take additional vitamin K2-MK7 form to protect your arteries.
Vitamin D has a number of other health benefits as well, including reducing your risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, heart attack, stroke, and cancer. Vitamin D may also play a role in macular degeneration, multiple sclerosis, colorectal cancer, inflammatory bowel disease and inflammatory rheumatic diseases.
Despite significant advancements in conventional Western medicine, there is little to offer in the care and treatment of the common cold caused by viruses. Although your physician may prescribe antibiotics for a cold, these have no impact on your symptoms as antibiotics work against bacteria and not viruses. Antibiotics are effective only if you develop a secondary bacterial infection after your immune system has been assaulted by a virus.
An uncomplicated cold may last between two days and two weeks, depending on your overall health, the specific virus involved and your use of natural strategies to help reduce the length of your symptoms. Over-the-counter remedies typically do not speed your recovery time; they only affect your symptoms for a short period. Many of these contain acetaminophen or ibuprofen that suppress your body’s ability to produce antibodies to fight the virus. This may actually lengthen the course of your illness.