Healthy Living

Common Sense on the Common Cold

Dec. 19, 2016

With trillions of cold viruses all around, it’s not uncommon to catch a cold every now and then. Despite all the advances of modern medicine, the cold continues to vex us. UR Medicine Primary Care’s Dr. Louis Papa explains why colds are easy to get, challenging to treat, and—so far—difficult to dodge.young, ill woman resting with a cup of tea

You know the signs: sore throat, cough, congestion, body aches, headache, sneezing, low-grade fever, and generally feeling crummy. No one escapes it. In fact, there are more than a billion viral upper respiratory illnesses (the medical term for the common cold) per year in the U.S. alone.

It may help to know these cold, hard facts:

  • The odds are in their favor. There are several hundred types of cold viruses and they are masters of survival—continually changing and mutating, overcoming mass extinctions of more complex and mightier species. And human bodies are perfect incubators for trillions of individual cold viruses to grow and mutate. Catching a cold has more to do with losing that numbers game than it does with the strength of your immune system. In fact, on average, adults have 2 to 4 colds a year and kids have twice that amount.
  • There’s no quick fix. There’s no vaccine and no cure for respiratory illnesses—yet. The sheer number of viruses and the high mutation rate has made a vaccination elusive. And while a flu shot is recommended for most people, it won’t prevent colds. Influenza is a very specific and potentially dangerous virus and the flu shot only works against that virus. Plus, studies show that most common-cold treatments like drug store medications and natural supplements are ineffective. These remedies, along with plenty of fluids and rest, may quell symptoms but they won’t make your cold go away faster or make you less contagious.
  • Antibiotics aren’t the answer. While they work when bacteria is the culprit, colds are caused by viruses and antibiotics won’t help your symptoms or hasten your recovery. In fact, taking an antibiotic when you don’t need it can do more harm than good. Bacteria can actually become resistant to antibiotics; as a result, they won’t work when you do need them. They should only be used when truly necessary.
  • Prevention is possible. Two simple steps may help you curb your cold-catching: wash your hands and stay away from people who are sick. It is especially important if you work in health care or have family or friends who have altered immunity due to disease or treatment for other conditions like cancer.
  • Sweat the big stuff. Luckily, the common cold is mostly a minor nuisance and is rarely associated with any serious complications. However, if you have a high fever, shortness of breath and prolonged illness (2 weeks or more), get in touch with your health care provider. You may have more than a common cold.


Lou Papa, MD


Louis J. Papa, M.D., is an internist with UR Medicine Primary Care, a professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and a Fellow of the American College of Physicians.