Tips to Prevent the Common Cold

Common cold prevention, treatment strategies explained

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Jennifer Gershman, PharmD, CPh

Cold and flu season has arrived, but that doesn't have to mean you or your family will get sick. Outsmart germs with these simple strategies.

When it comes to colds, you know the drill. Once you have one, the best remedy is plenty of rest and lots of fluids.

In other words, prevention really is the best medicine.

What Is the Common Cold?

More than 200 viruses can cause colds, but rhinoviruses are the most common. Infections are primarily spread from person to person through the air and close personal contact.

While most people get colds in the winter and spring, it's possible to get a cold any time of the year. Symptoms can include sore throat, runny nose, coughing, sneezing, watery eyes, headache and body aches.

Most people recover in seven to 10 days or so. However, those with weakened immune systems or respiratory conditions can develop serious and even life-threatening illnesses like pneumonia, in some cases.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), colds are the main reason children miss school and adults miss work each year in the US. The CDC estimates that adults have an average of two to three colds per year. Children have even more.

How to Prevent a Cold

Hand-washing is one of the easiest ways to prevent the spread of colds. That's because some of the viruses can survive outside the body — on surfaces or your hands — for a few hours, said Walker Winn, PharmD, a pharmacist in Austin, TX.

"Avoid touching commonly touched surfaces, including shared writing instruments, public doorknobs, light switches and pay phones, unless necessary," Dr. Winn told RxWiki News. "Washing your hands with warm water for at least 20 seconds or using hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol soon afterward can prevent transmission. It is also a good idea to wash or sanitize your hands after shaking someone else's hand.”

If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer instead, the CDC recommends.

For young children who tend to rush their hand-washing, have them sing a short song, such as "Happy Birthday," to ensure they wash for at least 20 seconds.

Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands. Viruses live on your hands and can easily enter your body this way. It's also a good idea to avoid sharing personal objects like utensils, cups and water bottles.

“Avoiding utensil-less food options can reduce the risk of transmission of bacteria and viruses that you have been exposed to from your hands and fingers into your body," Dr. Winn said. "Avoid touching your food whenever possible.”

If you can, stay away from anyone who is sick. Colds are spread through close contact with infected people.

If you're somewhere you're not able to wash or sanitize your hands, you can still take steps to lower your risk.

“Avoiding touching your fingers to your mucous membranes, including your eyes, mouth, and nose, can prevent a virus that you have been exposed to from entering your body and becoming infectious,” Dr. Winn said.

If You Have a Cold

If you're already sick, the CDC recommends following these tips to prevent viruses from spreading to others:

  • Stay home if you can and avoid close contact with others, such as hugging, kissing or shaking hands.
  • Cough and sneeze into a tissue and throw it away.
  • Or cough and sneeze into your elbow, completely covering your mouth and nose.
  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Disinfect frequently touched surfaces and objects like toys and doorknobs.

How to Feel Better

While there is no cure for the common cold, over-the-counter medicines can ease symptoms. Always read the label and use medications as directed.

And remember that not all remedies work as advertised, Dr. Winn said.

“Current research and evidence does not support the common belief that vitamin C supplementation can help reduce the risk of getting a cold or reduce the length of infection," he said.

It's important to talk to your doctor before giving your child any nonprescription cold medicine. Some medicines contain ingredients that are not recommended for children.

Because the common cold is caused by viruses and not bacteria, antibiotics will not help you recover. They may even make it harder for your body to fight future bacterial infections if you take them unnecessarily.

When to See a Doctor

The CDC estimates that as many as 49,000 people die from flu-like illness each year in the US. So call your doctor immediately if you or your child is experiencing one or more of these conditions:

  • A temperature higher than 100.4° F
  • Symptoms that last more than 10 days
  • Symptoms that are severe or unusual

If your child is younger than 3 months old and has a fever, you should always see your doctor right away.

Review Date: 
December 17, 2015