Rhinitis, inflammation of the mucous lining of the nose, is a nonspecific term that covers infections, allergies, and other disorders whose common featureis the location of their symptoms. These symptoms include infected or irritated mucous membranes, producing a discharge, congestion, and swelling of thetissues of the nasal passages. The most widespread form of infectious rhinitis is the common cold.

The common cold is the most frequent viral infection in the general population, causing more absenteeism from school or work than any other illness. Coldsare self-limited, lasting about 3-10 days, although they are sometimes followed by a bacterial infection. Children are more susceptible than adults; teenage boys than teenage girls; and adult women than adult men. In the United States, colds are most frequent during the late fall and winter.

Colds can be caused by as many as 200 different viruses which are transmittedby sneezing and coughing, contact with soiled tissues or handkerchiefs, or close contact with an infected person. Colds are easily spread in schools, offices, or any place where people live or work in groups. The incubation periodranges between 24 and 72 hours.

The onset of a cold is usually sudden. The virus causes the lining of the nose to become inflamed and produce large quantities of thin, watery mucus. Children sometimes run a fever with a cold. The inflammation spreads from the nasal passages to the throat and upper airway, producing a dry cough, headache,and watery eyes. Some people develop muscle or joint aches and feel generallytired or weak. After several days, the nose becomes less inflamed and the watery discharge is replaced by a thick, sticky mucus. This change in the appearance of the nasal discharge helps to distinguish rhinitis caused by a viralinfection from rhinitis caused by an allergy.

There is no specific test for viral rhinitis, and diagnosis is based purely on symptoms. In children, the doctor will examine the child's throat and glands to rule out measles and other childhood illnesses that have similar early symptoms. Adults whose symptoms last longer than a week may require further testing to rule out a secondary bacterial infection or an allergy. Bacterial infections can usually be identified from a laboratory culture of the patient'snasal discharge. Allergies can be evaluated by blood tests, skin tests for reaction to specific substances, or nasal smears.

There is no cure for the common cold; treatment is given for symptom relief.Medications include aspirin or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)for headache and muscle pain, and decongestants to relieve stuffiness or runny nose. Patients should be warned against overusing decongestants, because they can cause a rebound effect. Antibiotics are not given for colds because they do not kill viruses. Supportive care includes bed rest and drinking plentyof fluid. Treatments under investigation include the use of ultraviolet light treatment and injections of interferon.

Any of ten different homeopathic medicines might be prescribed, depending onthe appearance of the nasal discharge, the patient's emotional state, and thestage of infection. Naturopaths would recommend vitamins A and zinc supplements, together with botanical medicine made from echinacea (Echinacea spp.), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), or astragalus (Astragalus membraneceus) root.

Most colds resolve (cure themselves) completely in about a week. Complications are unusual but may include sinusitis (inflammation of the nasal sinuses),bacterial infections, or infections of the middle ear.

There is no vaccine effective against colds, and infection does not produce immunity against another cold. Prevention depends on:

  • Washing hands often, especially before touching the face
  • Minimizing contact with people already infected
  • Not sharing hand towels or eating and drinking utensils.

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