Girl blowing her nose

—Joshua S., Portland State University, Oregon(*Name changed)

Cold-causing viruses circulate readily in college communities, and they disrupt students’ academics and other activities, so it’s absolutely worth minimizing our exposure to them. We have easy ways to do that. Bear in mind, though, that sometimes, you’re just going to get sick. I often tell students: “If you don’t have time to catch a cold every now and then, you’re probably overcommitted.” Here’s what you need to know to make catching a cold a less frequent event:

How to avoid catching or sharing a cold

  • Wash your hands frequently: No other strategy is as effective, says the CDC.
  • Train yourself not to touch your nose or eyes unless you’ve just washed your hands; this also helps reduce your risk.
  • Stay home the first few days of being sick: Cold viruses are shed most heavily in the first few days of illness.
  • When coughing or sneezing, cover your mouth and nose with a strong tissue, or use this handy gadget called a Coughcatcher (see the next slide).
  • Do not take antibiotics; they do not prevent or treat colds. With no possible benefit here, the effects of taking antibiotics “for a cold” will be solely negative.

How colds are spread

  • Via our own hands: Cold viruses are sneezed, coughed, or breathed into the air and land on surfaces like desks and tables. Viruses can survive for hours on everyday surfaces. When we touch those surfaces, we get the virus on our hands. Those viruses can survive on our skin for two hours. When we touch our eyes or nose, we allow the virus to infect vulnerable cells. This is why frequent, thorough hand washing is so important.
  • Via droplets in the air that we inhale: Cold viruses can also be spread directly from person to person through respiratory droplets (microscopic germs that are sneezed, coughed, or breathed into the air).
  • Via children, directly or indirectly (sorry, kids): Children are thought to be the reservoirs of colds in communities. The viruses spread from young children to older siblings or adults, and then through school or work communities.

How to treat a cold

  • Colds get better without treatment after 5–10 days. Rest up, drink water and other healthy fluids, and try not to spread your virus to others.
  • Again, do not use antibiotics. Colds are caused by viruses. Viruses are different from bacteria. Antibiotics are not effective against viral infection, and they have downsides—both for you personally and for the community.
  • There is no compelling evidence to suggest that probiotics, zinc, vitamins, face masks, herbal products, or gargling are effective treatments for colds.

What a cold is and how a cold works

  • When health care providers and educators talk about the “common cold,” we’re referring to a specific type of illness. It is not the same as influenza (flu), pharyngitis (sore throat), sinusitis etc., though some of the symptoms can overlap.
  • A cold is a viral infection. More than 200 different viruses can cause colds, though about half of colds are caused by the rhinovirus.
  • When a cold-causing virus enters a cell, it hijacks the cell’s machinery and begins replicating itself, producing millions of copies. This infection triggers an inflammatory response in the body, which generates the characteristic symptoms of colds, like runny nose, nasal congestion, scratchy or sore throat, cough, and sometimes fever (this is more likely in younger people).
  • Not everyone develops symptoms every time they are exposed to a cold-causing virus. Children catch more colds than adults, suggesting that the body may develop some immunity to colds over time, though we never become fully immune.

What is a Coughcatcher and where do I get it?

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Dr. Davis Smith is a practicing internist and a staff physician at the University of Connecticut. He specializes in the care of transgender, gay and lesbian, and adolescent patients. Previously he worked at Trinity College and Wesleyan University.