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Common Colds: A Common Problem

Frank Gillingham, MD

Catching a cold is certainly not the worst health problem a traveler can experience but it's one of the most common and can throw a monkey-wrench into a carefully planned business trip. Viral respiratory illnesses are second only to Travelers' Diarrhea as the most common cause of infection among travelers. Adults generally experience 3-4 such illnesses per year, which in turn account for 30-50% of lost time from work.

While the common belief is that colds peak in winter, the most common cause of the common cold, the rhinovirus, peaks in early fall and spring. Other viruses that cause colds, coronaviruses, for example, are common throughout the fall, winter and spring.

Colds are spread through infected secretions, and hand-to-hand contact appears to be the most efficient method of transmission. Inoculation then occurs through the mouth, nose or conjunctiva (the mucous membranes of the eyes). Viruses persist on plastic surfaces for several hours, so using a telephone that someone with a cold has used even hours before can potentially lead to infection. Droplets in the air can also spread colds but this method of transmission isn't nearly as effective as hand-to-hand spread.

It is a myth that respiratory infections are caused by cold weather. If this were true, people in Maine would get more colds than people in Florida—which is not the case. In addition, there is little strong scientific evidence that fatigue or sleep deprivation contribute to the common cold.

Viral respiratory symptoms are well known: runny nose and nasal congestion, sneezing, sore throat, fatigue and possibly headache and fever, though this should be low if present. If your symptoms are different (e.g. you have a very severe sore throat but no runny nose) you may not have a viral respiratory infection and should consider a visit to a doctor (see below).

Here are some specific points to keep in mind to avoid and treat common colds: