If you feel like you spend half the winter sneezing, coughing, blowing your nose and suffering from a scratchy throat, youre not alone. These are symptoms of the common cold, the most prevalent illness known. It is estimated that in the course of a single year, individuals in the United States have approximately 1 billion colds. Chances are, at least one of them will be yours.

            In the United States, most colds occur in fall and winter. Since colds are not caused by exposure to cold weather or being chilled or overheated, it has been suggested that the seasonal increase is because people spend more time indoors in closer contact with each other, enhancing the likelihood that viruses will spread from person to person.

Cold symptoms appear about 3 days after infection and may include nasal discharge, congestion, sinus pain and swelling, sneezing, sore throat, cough, headache, and sometimes slight fever. Although colds are usually mild, lasting about a week to 10 days, they are a major nuisance and a leading cause of doctor visits and absences from work and school. The National Center for Health Statistics estimates that 66 million cases of the common cold result in doctor visits or restricted activity and that colds are responsible for 24 million days of restricted activity and 20 million days lost from school.

Colds are caused by a wide range of viruses, such as the rhinovirus, which do not respond to antibiotic treatment. There are many over-the-counter medicines available to treat colds, some of which claim to prevent or cure colds. According to a panel of experts commissioned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to study cold and allergy medications, however, while many will relieve some cold symptoms, none will prevent, cure, or even shorten the course of the common cold.

Since there is no prevention or cure, symptom relief is as god as it gets. There are medications that promise to clear congestion, suppress coughs, relieve sneezing and itchy, watery eyes, soothe throat pain, relieve headache pain, dry up a drippy nose, and reduce sinus pain.

While some nonprescription cold remedies target single symptoms, many are formulated to treat a combination of symptoms. These medications may be useful if you are actually suffering from all the symptoms they claim to relieve, but often, you may not have all symptoms at one time or perhaps you may be experiencing fewer symptoms than those the medicine is designed to treat. According to the panel studying cold remedies, it is irrational to take a combination product unless each ingredient is needed. It is better to choose medications that are specific to each cold sufferers symptoms. It is also essential to avoid taking over-the-counter medications that are not recommended for coexisting medical conditions or in combination with prescription drugs being used.

Since there is no medicine available to prevent colds, what can you do to avoid contracting and spreading cold viruses? The first and most important step you can take is to learn how cold viruses are transmitted. Coughing, sneezing, and coming in contact with respiratory secretions and then touching the eyes or nose are among the most common ways cold viruses are spread.

Now that you know how colds are spread, do all you can to avoid exposure and infection. Whenever possible, avoid extended contact with people who have colds, but if this isnt possible, the next best preventive strategies are to wash your hands frequently and keep them away from your nose and eyes. Whenever you sneeze or cough, be sure to cover your mouth with a tissue and throw it away immediately. Since cold viruses can live for up to 3 hours on environmental surfaces, such as doorknobs and countertops, frequent cleaning with a disinfectant that kills viruses might also help prevent the spread of colds.

Source: The Common Cold, The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, WebMD (website); The Common Cold: Relief But No Cure, Department of Health and Human Services Public Health Service, Food and Drug Administration (posted on the web by Hopkins Technology).