The common cold is a mild viral infectious disease of the nose and throat; the upper respiratory system. Symptoms include sneezing, sniffling, running/blocked nose (often these occur simultaneously, or one in each nostril); scratchy, sore, or phlegmy throat; coughing; headache; and tiredness. Colds typically last between three to five days, with residual coughing lasting up to three weeks. As its name implies, it is the most common of all human diseases, infecting subjects at an average rate of slightly over one infection per year per person. Infection rates greater than three infections per year per person are not uncommon in some populations. Children and their caretakers are at a higher risk, probably due to the high population density of schools and the fact that transmission to family members or caretakers is highly efficient.
Ninety-five percent of people exposed to a cold virus become infected, although only 75% show symptoms. The symptoms start 1-2 days after infection. They are a result of the body’s defense mechanisms: sneezes, runny nose and coughs to expel the invader, and inflammation to attract and activate immune cells. The virus takes advantage of sneezes and coughs to infect the next person before it is killed by the body’s immune system. Sneezes expel a significantly larger concentration of virus “cloud” than coughing. The “cloud” is partly invisible and falls at a rate slow enough to last for hours – with part of the water droplets evaporating and leaving much smaller and invisible “droplet nuclei” in the air. Droplets from turbulent sneezing or coughing or hand contact can also last for hours on surfaces, although less virus can be recovered from porous surfaces such as wood or paper towel than non-porous surfaces such as a metal bar. After a common cold, a sufferer develops immunity to the particular virus encountered. However, because of the large number of different cold viruses, this immunity is of limited use. A person can therefore easily be infected by another cold virus to start the process all over again.
The best way to avoid a cold is to avoid close contact with existing sufferers, to thoroughly wash hands regularly, and to avoid touching the face. Anti-bacterial soaps have no effect on the cold virus – it is the mechanical action of hand washing that removes the virus particles. In some countries, such as China and Japan, people with the common cold wear surgical masks out of courtesy to protect others.
There is no cure for the common cold, i.e. there is no treatment that directly fights the virus. Only the body’s immune system can effectively destroy the invader. A cold may be composed of several million viral particles, and typically within a few days the body begins mass producing a better tailored antibody that can prevent the virus from infecting cells, as well as white blood cells which destroy the virus through phagocytosis and destroy infected cells to prevent further viral replication. Furthermore the duration of infection is on the order of a few days to one week so at most a “cure” could hope to reduce the duration by only a few days.