Mindful awareness

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Facts about the Common Cold

Winter on its way so marketing for various cold remedies is beginning to proliferate. Many products claim to prevent or cure the common cold and still more claim to reduce the length of time one might experience cold symptoms. It’s time to consider what the common cold is and what one can to do about it.

The common cold is caused by viruses, most frequently by rhinoviruses. Viruses are microbes composed of nucleic acid and protein.  Unlike most microbes, viruses replicate only in their host’s cells. The virus is transmitted from one infected person to the other by contact with mucous membranes. No one ever has caught a common cold by being exposed to the elements. Going skating without hats and gloves and getting wet feet traipsing through snow will not cause someone to get a cold. The virus infects a new host when it comes in contact with that person through the nose and mouth. We catch a cold by being in close contact with someone with a cold or with items (like door knobs) handled by someone with a cold.

Because a virus is not a bacterium, antibiotics and antibacterial agents do not kill viruses. Hand sanitizers will not kill viruses that cause the common cold. The best way to wash one’s hands to reduce the spread of the infection is with soap and water. Some vaccinations and antiviral drugs have been developed to kill some viruses (for instance herpes and hepatitis) but these agents are specific to certain viruses. None has yet been developed to cure common colds, in part because so many different viruses can cause the common cold and the viruses vary from one year to the next.

No remedy on the market has been shown to cure the common cold. None has been shown to reduce the length of time one has a cold once infected with the virus. No remedy has been shown to reduce likelihood of showing symptoms of the virus once infected. Products marketed for these purposes are no more effective than placebo. Their claims are not valid any more than a placebo effect.

The best way to reduce cold symptoms is to rest and take pain killers (aspirin or ibuprofen) to feel better. Reducing swollen mucous membranes by using saline sprays, drinking hot liquids, and taking hot baths will help to reduce congestion. Menthol lozenges and honey will help to soothe a scratchy throat.

The best way to protect oneself from getting a cold in the first place is to wash hands frequently with soap and water (antibacterial hand sanitizer will reduce bacterial transmission, not viral) and to keep one’s hands away from the face. General good health achieved by eating a balanced diet, reducing stress and exercising, will help support the immune system. Overloading on vitamin pills has not been shown to reduce risk of getting a cold. At best taking too many units of vitamins will just make one’s urine extra expensive (vitamins such as B complex and C are excreted through the urine). At worst, some vitamins are stored in the body and can lead to vitamin toxicity when taken in doses higher than recommended (vitamins A, D, E and K).

Of course not all symptoms are indicative of the cold. Although a cough, sore throat, sneezing and stuffy nose are common symptoms of a cold, it is unlikely that fever and chills are related to the common cold. These are more likely flu symptoms. Some antiviral agents and vaccinations are available for certain strains of the flu. Making an appointment with a physician is unnecessary for the common cold, however, you might consider making an appointment if you suspect you have bronchitis, sinusitis, an ear infection or pneumonia. These ailments are caused by bacterial infections that would respond to antibiotics. Generally you will want to seek medical attention if your symptoms worsen or don’t get any better after a week or so, if a fever won’t break, if you experience shortness of breath, or if your face is painful around the sinuses.

The common cold is annoying and it would be fantastic if there were a cure. But the best we can do is stay healthy, keep our germs to ourselves, and rest and stay home if we have a cold. Good luck for a healthy cold season!

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