September 5, 2008

The Common Cold: Myths and Facts

Summer is over. School, crisp breezes and colored leaves are inevitable. But is the same true for catching a cold?

Most adults have two to four colds a year and children easily double
that figure, surveys report. Despite the name, colds are not caused by cold weather
but by warm humans. The only way to ensure that you never catch a cold
virus, says Dr. Jack Gwaltney, Jr., a cold specialist at the University
of Virginia, is to "become a hermit."

But knowing some
uncommon facts about the common cold may help you sail from Halloween
to St. Patty's day without stopping for a sneeze.

Kiss but don't shake

Not cut out for a Thoreau lifestyle? Here are some alternative solutions:

Wash your hands - a lot - and be aware that many people do not. And use soap, which is more effective than alcohol-based hand sanitizers. The key is to scrub well, for about 15 seconds.

Don't rub your eyes and no Eskimo kisses, but go ahead and give your
sniffling sweetie a smooch. Cold viruses love eyes and noses but rarely
leap mouth to mouth, says Gwaltney. And if a peck on the lips improves your mood, it may do more good than harm.


While a cold is a sign the body is battling an infection, many of
the symptoms, such as congestion, are excessive methods of combat. The
effectiveness of Airborne, zinc and other treatments remain controversial, but, in general, cold treatments try to shorten or block these gratuitous attacks.

Gwaltney advises starting treatment at the first hint of a cold
because "[immune system] pathways get ramped up very quickly, and once
they get started, they are hard to slow down." He recommends taking
first-generation antihistamines (the older ones, like Dimetapp, which
make you sleepy) and an anti-inflammatory, such as ibuprofen, until all
symptoms have stopped.

But there is a lot of disagreement on treatments. The Mayo Clinic
Women's HealthSource recommends skipping antihistamines, which dry up
nasal membranes and slow the mucus flow that helps rid your nasal
passages of germs.

Decongestants help ease stuffiness, according to the Mayo Clinic.
They shrink swollen tissue inside the noses. But decongestant sprays or
drops can worsen congestion if used more than two or three days.

Chicken soup, along with just about any fluid, can be useful, as
liquids help loosen the mucus that causes congestion. Humidity can
relieve congestion, too.

Just wait

Most treatments today address the cold symptoms, not the underlying
infection. The future in cold care may lie in a cocktail of
anti-inflammatory, anti-histamine and anti-viral medications, said
Gwaltney. Anti-viral drugs are being tested but so far none are
commercially available.

Creating a preventative vaccine, however, is less viable. Rhinoviruses,
the most common cause of the common cold, have more than 100 different
varieties. Acquiring immunity to one type does nothing to disarm the

Fortunately, says Gwaltney, each cold we battle makes us less
susceptible to colds in general - enabling many people to grow old
relatively sniffle-free. On the downside, studies with
mice suggest that frequent colds can, over a lifetime, aggravate memory loss.