The Common Cold


(This 921st Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on November 16, 2008.)


In a recent issue of New Scientist, writer Debora MacKenzie offered answers to eight mythic beliefs about the common cold. Briefly, they are:


1. Colds are caused by a weakened immune system. NOT NORMALLY.


2. Colds happen in winter because central heating dries our noses. NO


3. Stress causes colds. YES


4. Feed a cold and starve a fever. MAYBE (Corollary: chicken soup may help by providing protein and warming your throat.)


5. Blowing your nose helps clear out the virus. NO


6. Green mucus means you need antibiotics. NO


7. Large doses of Vitamin C prevent colds. NOT UNLESS YOU RUN MARATHONS OR WORK OUT IN THE SNOW


8. Red wine helps. YES (not as a cure but as a preventative.)


I back up here to see that we agree what we are talking about. The common cold is defined by your physician as an acute viral nasopharyngitis or acute coryza. For you and me that translates to a viral infection of the nose and throat.


Cold symptoms are caused by your immune system's response to viruses that have broken through your defenses and are replicating in your throat cells. That's why the irritation begins there first. Sore throats and sneezing are really chemical alarm signals released by those immune cells when they detect the viruses. As the cold progresses, those signals also include headaches, fatigue, loss of appetite, malaise, nausea, depression and even muscle pain.


Those early symptoms are followed by a runny nose as the inflammation response spreads. This begins as a watery discharge from tiny blood vessels and then nasal glands start producing mucus (snot to us less literate souls) to wash out virus particles. If the mucus turns green, it's not a sign of a bacterial infection; rather, the mucus contains white blood cells, the iron of their germ destroyers producing the green color.


Meanwhile, veins in the nose lining dilate. This swelling, not the mucus, is the main reason for the congestion that makes breathing difficult. Interestingly, your nostrils dilate alternately, about every three minutes, thus preventing complete blockage. Tear ducts and sinus passages inflame, making your sinuses hurt and eyes water. Finally, if the inflammation reaches deep in your throat, it triggers coughing.


Some additional information:


9. The common cold is indeed common. Adults typically have two to four a year, young children six to ten.


10. In this country, colds lead to almost 100 million physician visits annually costing almost $8 billion per year. Americans spend $2.9 billion on over-the-counter drugs and another $400 million on prescription medicines for relief of symptoms. Children miss about 100 million school days. Adults miss 275 million work days either because of illness or care for their children, the cost of this more than $20 billion.



11. Well over 200 different viruses are involved and new DNA techniques are identifying additional viruses every day. These results are important as they give researchers targets for response measures.


12. The common cold can lead to a number of complications including acute bronchitis, croup, pneumonia, sinusitis and strep throat and can exacerbate the effects of asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis. People with asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) are especially vulnerable. Colds should never be considered lightly. As with influenza, new viruses, like the Ad14 strain to which few of us are immune, killed a number of people in 2007 and remains at large.


13. There are no antiviral drugs approved to treat or cure colds. Most available medications only treat symptoms. Doctors and patients are urged not to use antibiotics because their use for colds over time promotes the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.


14. Colds are communicated in two ways: in aerosol form generated by coughing or sneezing or from contact with the saliva or nasal secretions of an infected person, either directly or from contaminated surfaces.


15. The best ways to avoid a cold, according to MacKenzie are to keep your nose warm, wash your hands often, and stay away from children. (That last is, of course, very difficult for children or families.) Others recommend keeping your hands from your face.


16. Cold care recommendations include: rest, avoid smoking, drink plenty of water, gargle with salt water, use over-the-counter cough drops or sprays and pain or cold medicines.-- Gerry Rising