Winter Colds: Survival Guide


Colds are caused by a viral infection in the upper airways, sinuses, throat, and nose.

Does Cold Weather Make Us Sick?

At this time of year, germs seem to be circulating everywhere. People at work are coughing and sneezing, and you are wondering how long it will be before you get the dreaded winter cold. The link between chilly weather and colds has inspired research for decades, and there is still controversy over this topic as researchers have reported conflicting results. Some studies have shown the viruses responsible for colds may be better able to reproduce at lower temperatures. A drop in temperature also appears to decrease your immune system’s ability to attack these viruses. On the other side of the argument, scientists point out that our behavior also changes during the colder months, as most people spend more time indoors with others and children are in school, making it easier for germs to spread.

What Causes the Common Cold?

Colds are caused by a viral infection in the upper airways, sinuses, throat, and nose. More than 200 different viruses can cause the common cold. Colds are extremely common: they are the main reason for missed school and work. Adults have an average of 2 or 3 colds per year, while children have as many as 12.

When a person with a cold coughs or sneezes, droplets containing the cold virus spread through the air, and if you happen to be in the line of “fire,” the cold virus can enter your body through your nose, mouth, or eyes. These germs can also be spread through physical contact (eg, hugging, kissing, shaking hands) or if you touch your nose, eyes, or mouth after you have touched something contaminated with the virus, such as a doorknob or keyboard. If you are not already immune to a specific cold virus from prior exposure, you may find yourself sniffling and sneezing within a day or two.

What Are the Symptoms?

The symptoms (Table 1) are actually signs that your immune system is working to fight the virus. The misery starts in the throat because that is where the receptors to which the virus attaches are located. The common cold virus does not directly damage our cells.

What Can You Do to Avoid Catching a Cold?

Although you cannot always avoid catching a cold, you can take steps to at least cut the risk of catching one (Online Table 2). First and foremost, wash your hands often with soap and water, and avoid touching your face. You probably cannot go around compulsively washing your hands, but if you shake hands with somebody who is obviously ill, you should wash your hands as soon as you can. It is even better if you can stay away from people who are sick.

Table 2: Don’t Spread the Germs!

  • Stay home when you are sick.

  • Avoid close contact with others.

  • Cough and sneeze into tissues and then throw them away.

  • Wash your hands after sneezing, coughing, or blowing your nose.

  • Disinfect doorknobs and other surfaces and objects.

See your doctor if you have:

  • A temperature higher than 100.4°F

  • Symptoms that last more than 10 days

  • Severe or unusual symptoms

How Do You Treat a Cold?

Usually, a cold will go away within a week or two, with no reason to see a doctor. No antiviral medications are available for treating the common cold, and antibiotics will not help because they do not kill viruses. It is important that you get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids, ideally water. Hot drinks are especially comforting because they soothe sore throats and help clear mucus.

OTC remedies will not kill viruses that cause colds, but may temporarily relieve symptoms. Be sure to ask your pharmacist for advice about which treatments are most suitable for you and your symptoms. Always follow all directions on the product package and use OTC products with caution if you have other medical conditions. Talk to your doctor before giving your child nonprescription cold medications, as some contain ingredients that are not recommended for children.

Your best bet when choosing OTC drugs is to look for singleingredient products that are targeted to your symptoms. For example:

  • To ease your sore throat, headache, and general aches and pains, try taking ibuprofen or naproxen.
  • Lozenges soothe sore throat and pain. • Older antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine and chlorpheniramine, help stop sneezing and will dry runny noses.
  • Decongestants (pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine) reduce nasal congestion by decreasing the swelling in nasal passages.
  • Expectorants (guaifenesin) thin and loosen mucus or phlegm if taken with adequate amounts of fluid.
  • Nasal spray decongestants (eg, oxymetazoline) should not be used for more than 3 days because prolonged use may cause rebound congestion, a condition in which redness and swelling in the nose increase.

Multisymptom cold medications include a mix of ingredients, some of which may be beneficial to you and some of which may not; therefore, multisymptom cold medications are not usually recommended. Avoid using more than one cough and cold medication at a time because different medications may contain the same active ingredients, which may cause you to exceed the maximum recommended dose.

For generations, grandmothers have insisted that chicken noodle soup is good for you when you get sick, and there may be some truth to this claim. A doctor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center conducted a study of chicken soup’s effectiveness as a cold remedy and found it had mild anti-inflammatory effects, but only in a laboratory; the test was not performed in people. At the very least, grandma’s recipe is comforting and the steamy soup may relieve dry nasal passages.

How Do You Keep from Spreading the Cold?

If possible, stay home from work and minimize contact with others, especially with the very old or young, as they are more susceptible to getting sick. Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you sneeze or cough. Discard used tissues, and wash your hands after coughing, sneezing, and blowing your nose.


  • A Harvard Medical School Guide: Cold and Flu. Harvard Medical School Patient Education Center website.

  • There is A Scientific Reason that Cold Weather Could Cause Colds. Smithsonian Magazine website.

  • Common Cold. Medline Plus website.

  • Facts About the Common Cold. American Lung Association website.

  • Got A Cold or Flu? Try Chicken Soup to Ease the Symptoms. University of Nebraska Medical Center website.

  • Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

Beth is a clinical pharmacist and medical editor residing in Northern California.

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