Tell me something I don’t know: The common cold

Q: My children have coughs and colds many times a year. Our whole household is sick. What can you advise us?

Your question comes at the right time because right now I am having a cold, too. And it is annoying. If you get to see your doctor, first, he will make sure that it is just the common cold. Other diseases that have the same symptoms as the cold are allergy, asthma and pneumonia.

If it is an allergy, we give anti-histamines like Loratadine 10mg daily. If there is wheezing and asthma, we give asthma medicine. And if there is bacterial infection, like a sore throat or pneumonia, doctors give antibiotics. If it is none of the above, then we can say that it is just the common cold.

Eeek, we’re contagious!

Most colds are caused by rhinoviruses, all 200 versions of the virus, which spread through the air when someone with an infection coughs or sneezes. Kids are notorious for spreading the virus especially in school. Why? Because they do not close their mouths when they cough. And they keep on hugging and kissing their classmates as if they will not see each other ever again. Kids also have poor knowledge on cleanliness, so they are very contagious.

Aside from inhaling the virus, you can also get them when you handle a contaminated object. Telephones, computers, toilets and doorknobs are especially notorious for harboring germs. Worst of all, did you know that the cold virus can live up to 48 hours on these objects? Hence, obsessive-compulsive people who keep on scrubbing their hands may be correct after all. Studies show that you really need to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap or with alcohol.

Here are some ways to dodge the cold virus:

  • No kissing and no holding hands.
  • No sharing of spoons, dishes, glasses and towels.
  • Cover your mouth when coughing.
  • Call in sick and stay at home to avoid infecting others.
  • Regularly clean your desk, phone and computer with alcohol.

Things you probably know

Let us look at how we can shorten the duration of a cold. Here are some treatments you probably know, but let me just remind you again.

Take water and other fluids. Drinking eight to 12 glasses of water a day can help. Water, juice, ginger drink (salabat), and warm calamansi juice with honey help loosen congestion and prevent dehydration. Avoid taking alcohol, coffee and soft drinks which make dehydration worse.

Take Vitamin C.
It may shorten a cold’s duration. A dose of 500 mg appears to be enough and is less irritating to the stomach. Consider cold medications. Over-the-counter decongestants may offer some symptom relief, but they will not prevent a cold or shorten its duration. You may or may not take these. A word of warning: those with high blood pressure and heart disease should be careful in taking them.

Rest, rest, rest. Tell your boss you are sick. Or do less work than usual so you can help your body recover. Resting your body boosts the immune system.

Things you probably do not know

Drink spicy chicken soup. Chicken soup helps the immune system and speeds up the movement of mucus through the nose. Some experts say that adding garlic, onions or chili also clears the nasal airways.

Avoid milk. Dairy products can make some people produce more phlegm. Avoid dairy products for the moment.

Gargle with salt water. A saltwater gargle using half a teaspoon salt in a glass of warm water can temporarily relieve a sore and scratchy throat.

Use steam. Steam inhalation, from hot water, hot soup or a machine, helps a dry cough by increasing the humidity in the air. You can also take a hot steamy bath or use a humidifier. Whatever you do, just increase the “wetness” around you and it will help loosen phlegm.

Try zinc. Zinc lozenges may reduce cough and cold symptoms. Cough lozenges or hard candy can help a dry, tickling cough, but should not be given to kids under three because they may choke.

Consider alternative medicines. Echinacea is a very popular herbal remedy for colds although studies have not yet proven it conclusively. Personally, I use Chinese medicines because it relieves my chest congestion.

Use positive thinking. Some studies show that having a positive attitude and visualization your body cells killing and flushing away the cold virus can hasten your recovery. The mind and body are more connected than you think. Think healthy and chance are, you will be healthy.

Lastly, when should you see your doctor? If your fever is more than 38.5 C, if you have difficulty breathing or coughing out too much phlegm, then it is probably better to visit your favorite doctor. Just make sure he does not have a cold like me.


First published in Tulay Fortnightly, Chinese-Filipino Digest 22, no. 8 (September 22-October 05, 2009): 5-6.