The common cold, also known as an upper respiratory
tract infection, occurs more than 1 billion times each year in the
United States. Most adults can expect to have 4 to 6 colds per year. Children
often have more than 9 colds per year, especially if they attend child-care
facilities, where they are exposed to other children with colds. The May 28,
2003, issue of JAMA includes an article about upper respiratory tract infections
and proper use of antibiotics.
Colds are caused by viruses. Cold viruses can be spread through the
air by droplets from a sneeze or cough but are primarily spread by touching
your nose, eyes, or mouth after contact (for example, shaking hands) with
someone who has the cold virus. You do not catch a cold from exposure to cold
weather or by being chilled or overheated.
Two or three days after infection with a cold virus, symptoms develop.
Runny nose, sneezing, nasal stuffiness, scratchy throat, mild fatigue, slight
fever, and dry cough are all symptoms of a common cold.
You are infectious (can spread the cold) to other people before you know you
have a cold.
Wash your hands frequently, especially if you or your children have a cold.
Avoid close contact with anybody who has a cold.
Use a tissue when you cough or sneeze from a cold and throw the tissue away immediately.
Wash your hands after blowing your nose or sneezing into your hand.
Stay at home and rest if you have a cold. Your body needs rest to recover from a cold, and you can avoid giving the cold to others.
Antibiotics are not useful for treating colds because they only kill
bacteria, not viruses. The inappropriate use of antibiotics is a major factor
in causing bacteria to become resistant to antibiotics that previously were
able to kill them. Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem around the world.
Bacteria with antibiotic resistance can cause serious illness and death.
Do not ask your doctor for antibiotics if you have a cold.
If antibiotics are prescribed for a bacterial infection, take
them exactly as you are instructed. It is important to take the full course
Do not share antibiotics with anyone else.
Do not take antibiotics as a preventive measure against bacterial
infection when you have a cold. This does not help you prevent a bacterial
Usually cold symptoms last for 1 to 2 weeks, although chest colds (bronchitis)
typically last 2 to 3 weeks. If your symptoms are not improving after 1 to
2 weeks, you may have an allergy, a complication of a cold, or some other
reason for your symptoms. You should contact your doctor if your cold symptoms
do not improve after 2 weeks, or anytime during your illness if you develop
a high fever; have difficulty breathing or swallowing; or experience severe
headache, severe fatigue, or a rash.
Centers for Disease Control and Preventionhttp://www.cdc.gov/drugresistance/community
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseaseshttp://www.niaid.nih.gov/factsheets/cold.htmhttp://www.niaid.nih.gov/factsheets/antimicro.htm
American Academy of Pediatricshttp://www.aap.org
To find this and previous JAMA Patient Pages, go to the Patient Page
link on JAMA's Web site at http://www.jama.com. Many are available in English and Spanish. A Patient Page on strep
throat was published in the December 13, 2000,issue
The JAMA Patient Page is a public service of JAMA. The information and recommendations appearing on this page are appropriate
in most instances, but they are not a substitute for medical diagnosis. For
specific information concerning your personal medical condition, JAMA suggests that you consult your physician. This page may be photocopied
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To purchase bulk reprints, call 718/946-7424.
Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Academy
of Pediatrics, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Topic: INFECTIOUS DISEASES
Torpy J, Lynm C, Glass RM. Coughs, Colds, and Antibiotics. JAMA. 2003;289(20):2750. doi:10.1001/jama.289.20.2619