Common Cold

Words: Dr Rajgopal NIDAMBOOR

There are dozens of viruses that cause colds — the most common being rhinoviruses. Over 200 types of rhinoviruses are implicated in the causative mechanism of a cold.

The worst part is — the nasal distress, caused by rhinoviruses, are more frequent in spring and fall, although they can instigate the cold despair during other seasons, or times of the year, including summer.

You also know it, don’t you — that when a person’s hands come in contact with nasal secretions of an infected person, especially when one touches one’s mouth, face, nose, or eyes, the awfully resilient viruses gain entry into the body and generate a fresh cold attack. However, the common cold is not often spread, as is the popular opinion, when a person breathes in air that contains coughed droplets, or sneeze, by a person affected by cold.


In realistic terms, a cold is most transmittable in the first 1-2 days after symptoms develop. Interestingly, getting chilled does not increase a person’s ‘propensity’ to infection, or the risk of catching a cold. Also, general health and/or eating habits do not affect one’s vulnerability to infection. This holds good in cases where there is a certain abnormality of the nose or throat — viz., enlarged tonsils and adenoid growth, or vegetation.

While immunity following a bout of cold is short, the severity varies extensively. What’s more, colds are common in small children, just as much as the frequency decreases with age, albeit a ‘bad’ cold is not uncommon in adults with the frequency being anywhere between one and six colds a year. Whatever its intensity, a cold is often annoying and frustrating for the individual, besides lost workdays.


While cold symptoms begin 1-3 days after infection, the first sign of cold is a feeling of uneasiness, or scratchy feeling, in the nose, or throat. As the affected person embarks on a sneezing voyage, you not only have symptoms of a runny nose, but also a mild feverish feeling.

High body temperature may be infrequent in a typical cold infection; however, it is not uncommon to have a little fever at the beginning of the illness. Typical manifestations of a cold, when it really hits one hard, include clear, or watery, secretions and discharges which can be exasperatingly abundant; the secretions may also become thick, dense, yellowish-green, or less profuse; and, they may be accompanied by cough too.

Symptoms usually disappear in 4-8 days, while the cough may sometimes extend for a fortnight, or so.


Colds may also be protracted in some cases — and, this is where you have the possibility of a complication. A prolonged cold infection can sometimes trigger ‘asthmatic’ attacks in people with asthma.

Common cold, in some individuals, can lead to bacterial infection of the middle ear — otitis media — or, sinusitis [inflammation of the sinuses]. The problems develop because the ‘jamming’ in the nose obstructs the ‘drainage’ system. This, in turn, allows bacteria to proliferate within the blocked discharges. Also, bacterial infection of the lower airways may trigger bronchitis [inflammation of the mucous membrane of the bronchial tubes], or pneumonia [inflammation of the lung cells], in certain individuals.


While a cold infection is easily diagnosed, a state of high fever, severe headache, rash, difficulty in breathing, or chest pain would suggest the advent of an infection — not just common cold. Your doctor may recommend blood tests and X-ray, among others, if a complication from cold is suspected.


Cold is best prevented — the best pre-emptive measure being first-class cleanliness.

  • Since cold viruses often spread through contact with an infected person, anyone living in close proximity, or working closely in an office setting, should ‘soap-wash’ and dry their hands frequently
  • Cold sufferers should always sneeze and cough into tissue, or hanky, which should be carefully disposed of, or detergent washed. It would be better for the infected person to isolate oneself in a separate room
  • People who are sneezing and coughing from a cold infection should avoid going to work — because they may, quite easily, infect others. It is also recommended that shared objects and surfaces should be cleaned thoroughly; this can help reduce the spread of common cold viruses
  • It is ideal for one affected by cold to stay warm and comfy; this serves a dual purpose. It will not only help avoid the spread of the infection to others, it will also help overcome the loss of man hours at the workplace
  • For those who run a fever, or have severe symptoms, it would make sense to take rest at home — a forced holiday, as it were. The good old idea of drinking fluids and inhaling steam, or mist, from a vaporiser is useful — they keep secretions loose and easy to expel.

One would do well to remember that most conventional anti-viral drugs, in use for other ailments, are not effective against cold. Antibiotics too do not help treat a cold; they are only prescribed when the nose, or cough, produces coloured, or stringy, mucous.

An effective vaccine against common cold has not been developed yet — because, there are a host of viruses implicated in the disorder. The problem is worse compounded by the fact that each virus modifies itself over a period of time.


Several popular over-the-counter [OTC] medications, as everyone knows, are being used to keep a cold at bay, or help reduce its intensity. Their value is limited — although they alleviate symptoms to an extent. Besides, one can also apply a range of drugs to relieve cold symptoms: nasal drops, or decongestants, to help clear nasal passages, anti-histamines to help dry a running nose, and cough syrups to alleviate irritating symptoms. Some anti-histamines can cause drowsiness; they may also not be safe for use in old people. While aspirin may not be useful in colds, it may be emphasised that the drug should not be used in children [NB: Aspirin can lead to an amplified risk of Reye’s syndrome — a condition that develops after an acute febrile illness, usually influenza or varicella {chicken-pox} infection. The syndrome is characterised by recurrent vomiting beginning within a week after onset of the infection, and from which the child either recovers within a day or two, or lapses into coma with intracranial high blood pressure. Death may result from oedema {swelling} of the brain and cerebral protrusion].

CAM To The Fore 

The big irony is most high-end research for a possible cure for common cold has gone kaput. To cull a case in point — a super-specialised research centre, established at a cost of UK£10-billion, to find a cure for common cold, in the UK, failed to produce results and was closed down. It did not take long, thereafter, for people in Britain to savour the many delights of Indian curry as a cure for common cold. The fact, therefore, is obvious — the common cold continues to cost US$40 billion, a year, thanks to the use of every medication possible to ‘beat’ it at the drop of a sneeze. This is not just passé, but a cruel joke — a nasty slap for our scientific and medical advance.

Complementary and alternative medicine [CAM] physicians and therapists extol the therapeutic finesse of supplements like echinacea, zinc, quercetin [a bioflavonoid], the queen of anti-allergic supplements, vitamin C, and vitamin D, aside from Ayurveda and homeopathy, as being effective to prevent and abort a cold. Although conventional research has not established their fulsome efficiency, or effectiveness, to reduce the duration of a cold, the fact remains that echinacea, turmeric and high-dose vitamin C — up to 2,000 mg per day — have been found to ‘thwart’ colds in certain contexts. This is not all. A handful of them favour the use of interferon [anti-viral medication] to beat a cold. The substance is said to reduce the possibility of acquiring a rhinovirus cold, albeit the downside is it can cause irritation and bleeding of the nose, or not ‘act’ against certain cold viruses.


The use of complementary medicines is large and growing in both the United States and Europe. Excerpts from a study:

Objective. To compare the effects of a complex homeopathic preparation [Engystol; Heel GmbH, Baden-Baden, Germany] with those of conventional therapies with anti-histamines, anti-tussives, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs on upper respiratory symptoms of the common cold in a setting closely related to everyday clinical practice.

Design. Non-randomised, observational study over a treatment period of maximally two weeks. 

Setting. Eighty-five general and homeopathic practices in Germany.

Participants. Three hundred ninety-seven patients with upper respiratory symptoms of the common cold.

Interventions. Engystol-based therapy, or common over-the-counter [OTC] treatments, for the common cold. Patients receiving this homeopathic treatment were allowed other short-term medications, but long-term use of analgesics, antibiotics, and anti-inflammatory agents was not permitted. Patients were allowed non-pharmacological therapies, such as vitamins, thermotherapies, and others.

Main outcome measures. The effects of treatment were evaluated on the variables, fatigue, sensation of illness, chill/tremor, aching joints, overall severity of illness, sum of all clinical variables, temperature, and time to symptomatic improvement.

Results. Both treatment regimens provided significant symptomatic relief, and this homeopathic treatment was non-inferior in a non-inferiority analysis. Significantly more patients [P< .05] using Engystol-based therapy reported improvement within 3 days [77.1 per cent vs 61.7 per cent for the control group]. No adverse events were reported in any of the treatment groups.

Conclusion. This homeopathic treatment may be a useful component of an integrated symptomatic therapy for the common cold in patients and practitioners choosing an integrative approach to medical care.

  • Volker Schmiedel, Peter Klein, “A Complex Homeopathic Preparation for the Symptomatic Treatment of Upper Respiratory Infections Associated with the Common Cold: An Observational Study,” Explore [NY]. 2006 Mar;2[2]:109-14. doi: 10.1016/j.explore.2005.12.008.
Dr RAJGOPAL NIDAMBOOR, PhD, is a wellness physician-writer-editor, independent researcher, critic, columnist, author and publisher. His published work includes hundreds of newspaper, magazine, web articles, essays, meditations, columns, and critiques on a host of subjects, eight books on natural health, two coffee table tomes and an encyclopaedic treatise on Indian philosophy. He is Chief Wellness Officer, Docco360 — a mobile health application/platform connecting patients with Ayurveda, homeopathic and Unani physicians, and nutrition therapists, among others, from the comfort of their home — and, Editor-in-Chief, ThinkWellness360.

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