How to Prevent the Common Cold

The common cold

The common cold is arguably the most common illness in humans.

The common cold usually involves symptoms including runny nose, cough, sore throat, and sneezing. Each year, the common cold affects millions of Americans, causing them to miss school and work. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates adults have about 2-3 colds per year, and children experience 8-12 colds annually.

What causes the common cold, and how is it spread?

A boy spreads a virus by sneezing/spraying germ droplets.

The common cold refers to a group of symptoms caused by viruses. Rhinoviruses cause the most cases of the common cold, and more than 200 different viruses have been identified that cause cold symptoms. Colds are most often transmitted from one person to another via the hands – for example, by shaking hands with a person who has a cold. Droplets containing the virus may be coughed or sneezed by an infected person into the air and inhaled by another. The virus may contaminate a surface such as a doorknob or countertop.

You can reduce your risk of getting a cold by following a few simple steps.

1. Wash your hands often.

A person washes their hands in a bathroom sink.

Washing your hands for at least 20 seconds can help protect you from getting sick. Washing your hands frequently helps prevent the spread of infection. Use plain soap and water, making sure to pay attention to spaces between fingers, and under the fingernails. Rinse and dry with a clean towel. Teach your children to wash their hands properly. If soap and water is unavailable, alcohol-based hand sanitizers are an alternative.

Make sure to wash hands after sneezing or coughing, and before handling food.

2. Avoid touching your face.

A girl rubs her eye.

Viruses can enter your body through the areas around your nose, mouth, and eyes. It is important to avoid touching your face if you are exposed to a person with a cold, especially if you have not washed your hands.

3. Don't smoke

A woman smokes a cigarette.

Smoking tobacco products irritates and damages the throat and lungs, and can worsen cold symptoms – which already include a sore throat and cough. Even secondhand smoke can cause irritation. A recent study also found the anti-viral response in smokers may become suppressed, making them less able to fight off infection.

4. Use disposable items if a family member is infected.

A boy drinks from a disposable plastic cup.

Use your own disposable plates, cups, and utensils and discard them after use if you have a cold. This is especially helpful if there are children in the household, who may attempt to take food off others' plates, or drink from others' cups.

5. Keep household surfaces clean.

A person cleans and wipes a faucet.

Clean all household surfaces frequently to keep them germ-free. Viruses can live on surfaces for several hours after being touched by an infected person. Pay attention to the areas you touch most often and use soap and water, bleach, or disinfectant cleaners to wipe off doorknobs, keyboards, phones, remote controls, desks, toys, countertops, faucet handles, and drawer pulls.

6. Wash toys

A room full of toys.

Children are four times more likely to get a cold than adults, and often the common cold virus is spread by contact with toys. When you clean all household surfaces, remember to clean your child's toys too.

7. Use paper towels

A paper towel roll.

Cloth towels can harbor viruses for hours after being touched, just as many surfaces do. To avoid contamination, use paper towels to clean up in the kitchen and to dry your hands after washing.

8. Throw tissues away after use

A bowl of chicken noodle soup and a box of tissues.

You'll probably use a lot of tissues if you have a cold, but be sure you throw them away after each use. Even a small sneeze into one tissue will harbor the virus for hours and if placed on a table or countertop, it will contaminate the surface.

9. Maintain a healthy lifestyle

A woman sleeping, a healthy refrigerator, and a woman exercising on a treadmill.

It's important to be healthy at all times, so that if you do get a cold your body's immune system is strong and can fight the infection. Eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, exercise regularly, and get enough sleep.

10. Control stress

A woman relaxes with her eyes closed.

When we experience stress we release a hormone called cortisol, which has anti-inflammatory properties. Chronic stress causes an over-production of this hormone, which in turn causes the immune system to become resistant to it. Studies have shown that when a chronically stressed person is exposed to the common cold virus, which causes inflammation, their bodies are less able to fight it because their natural anti-inflammatory response does not work as well as it should.



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