The common cold

  • Health
  • Sunday, 27 Apr 2003


WITH so many SARS cases all round the world, one of the most frightening experiences for me last week was to get a fever, cough and runny nose. I went to my GP, who told me I had the common cold. Despite having had it many times in the past, I have never really understood what it is. 

The common cold is a very common viral infection that occurs in your nose. Sometimes it can also involve your sinuses, ears and bronchial tubes (air passages leading to your lungs).  


How is it spread? Is it like SARS? 

There are many hypotheses how the SARS virus is spread, and they are still being investigated. But yes, they probably share some similarities.  

You see, the cold virus grows mainly in the nose where it multiplies. There are huge amounts of it in the nasal fluid, especially in the first three days when you are having the cold.  

When the person having the cold sneezes or coughs, he expels many droplets that carry the cold viruses. These droplets may land on the nose or eye of another person, and he may get infected. So there is truth in those old wives’ tales who tell you never to sneeze into another person’s face. 

Also, if the same afflicted person touches his own nose with his hands, the virus then contaminates this part of the body. You may not realise it, but you probably touch your nose more frequently when you are having a cold than when you are not. This is a result of blowing your nose more often, covering your sneezes or just plain nose rubbing to get rid of the itchiness. 

When you touch objects surrounding you with these contaminated hands, you spread it as well. Experiments have shown this happening. That’s why the common cold virus is so contagious. 


What is the cold virus called? 

There are over 100 different cold viruses. Yes, they are an affectionate crowd. But the most common of them is the Rhinovirus. (Rhino = nose).  


I read somewhere that cold viruses die when they are outside the body. How then can they be spread through objects? 

They can only multiply or reproduce inside a living body, and their favourite place is the nasal (nose) cell. When they go out into the environment, they cannot multiply. Unfortunately, they remain infectious. 


My brother has a cold. He did exactly what my mother said he shouldn’t do, sneeze right into my face. I think I’m going to get a cold too. How long would I have to wait? 

When a cold virus enters the nose, it takes eight to 12 hours (incubation period) for the virus to complete one reproductive cycle. Even very small doses of virus, like one to 30 particles, are sufficient to give you an infection. 

About 10 to 12 hours from the first second of entry, you may start having symptoms. Usually your symptoms peak at 36 to 72 hours. 

What are the symptoms? 

These include sneezing and a runny or watery nose. When the mucous gets thicker, you may have nasal blockage. One may also have a sore throat, cough and a headache. 

Note that all viruses tend to produce generalised symptoms like mild fever and a sense of not feeling well. Cold symptoms are actually the result of the body’s reaction to the infection. When your nose produces copious amounts of mucous, it’s a way of getting rid of the cold virus. Ditto a cough.  


How long does it last?  

Usually a week, though medical certificates are given for the first two days, primarily. Mild colds last two to three days while severe ones can take up to 2 weeks. 


How is it different from influenza or SARS? 

The common cold is a milder illness compared to influenza. Influenza produces a more severe fever, cough and muscle aches. As you have probably read, the fever in SARS is relatively high and the cough is typically dry. If in any doubt, consult a doctor immediately.  

Observe also the SARS procedures outside some GP clinics, as some tell you to proceed straight to the government hospitals if you have suspected SARS and a history of travel to afflicted countries.  


It was only in January that I had a cold. How come I’m having it again now? 

You are not alone. I had a cold in January too. Most adults have two to three colds every year, and children up to six or 10. Children who have colds are extremely infectious, more so than adults. 


I’ve heard of the maxim – there is no cure for the common cold. Is this true or is it just an old wives’ tale?  

There is no cure per se, but there is certainly some symptomatic treatment. These usually consist of antihistamines, non-steroidal anti inflammmatory drugs (NSAIDs), decongestants and cough suppressants.  

Antihistamines are for sneezing, runny nose and possibly for cough (according to some of their product information). NSAIDs are for fever and headache. Decongestants are for nasal obstruction and cough suppressants are self-explanatory.  

The cold will usually run its course and the body will overcome it. Sometimes it can proceed to complications like secondary bacterial infection, especially in your sinuses and middle ear.  


  • Dr YLM graduated as a medical doctor, and has been writing for The Star and other magazines for seven years on various subjects such as medicine, health advice, computers and entertainment. 

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