Computed tomographic study of the common cold

N Engl J Med. 1994 Jan 6;330(1):25-30. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199401063300105.


Background: Colds are common, but the abnormalities they produce in the nasal passages and sinus cavities have not been well defined.

Methods: We studied healthy adult volunteers with self-diagnosed colds of 48 to 96 hours' duration and obtained the following data: information on symptoms, computed tomographic (CT) studies of the nasal passages and sinuses, mucosal-transport times, measures of nasal-airway resistance, and viral-culture studies. Thirty-one subjects (mean age, 24 years) had complete evaluations, including CT scans, which were read without knowledge of the clinical data. An additional 79 subjects underwent the same evaluations, except the CT scans.

Results: Of the 31 subjects with CT scans, 24 (77 percent) had occlusion of the ethmoid infundibulum; 27 (87 percent) had abnormalities of one or both maxillary-sinus cavities; 20 (65 percent) had abnormalities of the ethmoid sinuses; 10 (32 percent) had abnormalities of the frontal sinuses; and 12 (39 percent) had abnormalities of the sphenoid sinuses. Infraorbital air cells were present in 14 subjects (45 percent), and pneumatization of the middle turbinate (concha bullosa) was noted in 11 subjects (35 percent). Also common were engorged turbinates (in 7 subjects) and thickening of the walls of the nasal passages (in 13). After two weeks, the CT studies were repeated in 14 subjects, none of whom received antibiotics. In 11 of these subjects (79 percent) the abnormalities of the infundibula and sinuses had cleared or markedly improved. Nasal-airway resistance was abnormal in 29 (94 percent) and mucosal transport in 19 (61 percent) of the 31 subjects who had CT scans. Rhinovirus was detected in nasal secretions from 24 (27 percent) of 90 subjects.

Conclusions: The common cold is associated with frequent and variable anatomical involvement of the upper airways, including occlusion and abnormalities in the sinus cavities.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Airway Resistance
  • Common Cold / diagnostic imaging*
  • Common Cold / physiopathology
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mucociliary Clearance
  • Nasal Cavity / diagnostic imaging
  • Nasal Mucosa / metabolism
  • Nasal Mucosa / microbiology
  • Nasal Mucosa / physiopathology
  • Paranasal Sinuses / diagnostic imaging*
  • Paranasal Sinuses / physiopathology
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed*