What exactly is a cold?
Colds (or rhinitis) are the most common type of viral infection involving the upper respiratory tract, and can be caused by over 200 types of different viruses.
What causes colds?
Because colds are a type of viral infection, they are mainly caused by contact with other people and the spread of bacteria and viruses in indoor environments. For this reason, they occur more frequently during colder months, when people are less likely to take outdoor exercise or to ventilate their living space.
What are the main symptoms of colds?
The symptoms of a cold usually appear 2 or 3 days after you contract the infection, and the main ones are stuffy or runny nose and sneezing.
A cold often involves not just the nose but also the throat, producing soreness and coughing. In some cases, the ears can also be affected and one of the most common by-products of a cold is otitis.
The most obvious symptom of a cold is a stuffy nose, which is generally caused by two natural responses to inflammation:
- Vasodilatation, or the opening of tiny blood vessels in the nostrils (nasal congestion)
- Excessive production of thick, whitish mucus (rhinorrhoea)
How often do colds occur and how long do they last?
Adults generally catch a cold 2 to 4 times a year, but children are more susceptible to respiratory infections. Babies less than a year old only breathe through their noses and are unable to blow them, so there is a high risk that viruses will congregate inside the nasal cavities. In addition, young children's immune systems are not yet fully developed, making them more open to attack by viruses.
During the first 2 years of life a child may catch up to 9 colds a year, more commonly in the winter months. The risk is higher for children who have older siblings or who go to nursery school. After age two, the immune system becomes stronger and so colds occur less frequently.
If you do not have any other underlying conditions, you will usually recover from a cold in one to two weeks.
How can colds be prevented and treated?
For very young children, a cold can cause serious discomfort. Because they can only breathe through the nose, even pleasurable activities such as feeding and sleeping may become very difficult if the nose is congested.
For this reason, it is important to take a few minor precautions to prevent and alleviate discomfort during the early stages a cold:
- The most important precautionary measure is to ensure that the nose is always kept clean. If the cold has already started and your child has a stuffy nose, you can use a hypertonic solution with a natural decongestant action and without any added medication.
- Teach a young child to blow his nose on his own and use nasal sprays
- Use a humidifier or vaporiser to improve the quality of indoor air, or just place wet towels on radiators and ensure that you ventilate the room frequently, even in cold weather.
- Do turn the heating up too high. Very young children are not yet fully able to regulate their body heat, so if you cover them with too many blankets or heat the room to above 19-20°C this can encourage them to develop a temperature.
- Ensure your baby drinks a lot. This will keep the mucus in the nose more liquid and prevent the build-up of congestion, which not only makes breathing harder, but also allows infected material to collect in the paranasal sinuses and the ear canal, increasing the risk of more painful and serious conditions such as sinusitis and otitis.