The Common Cold: Your Questions Answered

It’s morning.  I’m getting ready for school and hear my family in the kitchen.  My husband’s rattling cough, punctuated by wall-shaking sneezes, echoes through the house.  My daughter harmonizes with a wheezy, low melody.  My older son, who normally sneezes three times in a row on a good day, seems determined to break the world’s record for ah-choos in rapid succession.  And my younger son?  Still out “cold” and I’m just letting him sleep.  As for me, I’m dragging and achy and my throat is sore.  I don’t have the sonorous coughing or sneezing like the rest of my family but I feel awful just the same.

BTW, if you are thinking about visiting us today, you may not want to after all.

Ah, spring colds.  The only thing worse?  Summertime colds.

We all get them, we can’t avoid it.  Those (oh-so-very) common colds.  We can self-diagnose pretty well:  cough, runny nose, sore throat.  And self-treat:  rest, fluids, decongestants.  We seem to be ingrained with that routine, or at least the knowledge of it.  But have you ever been curious about why you feel sicker in the am that at midday?  Or why we need those extra fluids?  When our family quintet came down with this latest virus, I started to ponder, again, those questions regarding the common cold and went in search of some answers.

That said, I like to use reputable medical sites when I research a post.  But much of my information did not come from those sites, and I did try to use those sources.  What I learned is that either studies have not be done, or people (including medical professionals) are drawing conclusions based on a basic knowledge of how we fight illness.  I tried to draw info from reasonable, plausible content, written by people who hold reputable credentials.  Once I did use Wiki (forgive me).  In other words, I used what I already know to evaluate the content out there and drew from “the good stuff.”  I hope what follows answers some of your burning questions about the common cold.

So why is this infection described as “common”?  It seems to go without saying, especially as it is a very common illness.  We all get colds, some of us more often than others.  Young kids can get 6 to 8 colds a year, and adults 2 to 4.  The nomenclature comes from (and this is where my brief foray into Wiki comes in) the theory that some cold viruses are more common and thrive in cold weather.  Which brings up an interesting point:

It’s not cold weather per se that increases our chances of catching colds.  It’s the circumstances that result from cold weather, which is why spring and summer colds can be such a bummer.  In the winter, we spend more time indoors with the windows latched and the furnace running.  Our homes and the other spaces we inhabit aren’t circulating fresh air.  And the furnace-warmed air lowers humidity and our noses and mouths (mucus membranes) dry out, which make it easier for cold (and other) viruses to make us sick.

How the common cold is spread:  it may just surprise you.  We wash our hands and “cover our coughs” and “sneeze in our sleeves,” and diligently wipe down surfaces with an antiseptic cleaner.   All good advice when trying to prevent others from catching a cold.  Colds are spread by droplets, which are inhaled after an infected person coughs or sneezes, or ingested after touching, for example, a doorknob and then our faces.  Cold viruses love to hang out…staying alive on a person for about two hours, longer on inanimate surfaces.  And the more time you spend with someone who is ill, you are more likely to catch his cold.  But here’s the interesting part:  used tissues and saliva are not great modes of transportation for an eager virus.  You still may not want to clean up the trail of tissues left by your kids or kiss your significant other, but neither is likely to get you sick.

How do I know if I am contagious?  Well, this is tricky.  It is estimated that we shed viral progeny (“babies,” if you will) for five to seven days after we come down with symptoms:  cough, runny nose, sore throat, etc.  What’s more (sneaky viruses) is we are contagious before we even know we are ill, for the day before we realize we have a cold.  In short, we are contagious when we are shedding viruses, and most able to infect others a day before to two to three days in to our misery.

Why do I feel worse in the morning and in the evening?   Circadian, or body rhythms, are suspected but apparently there are no good studies on the topic.  However, it is known that certain immune factors that help us fight infection are more active at night; it is thought that these factors can increase cold symptoms and make us more miserable when we need the rest (ironic, huh?).  One “lay” explanation as to why we feel worse in the morning is that we have been lying down all night, and we move those nasty secretions less effectively than when we are upright and use gravity to our advantage.  Another theory is we wake up in the morning dehydrated, and the “junk” is thick and more difficult to get rid of.  In the afternoon and evening we may feel worse after our daily routine, and our bodies are simply tired and less able to fight infection.

Rest and fluids,  fluids and rest.  We know the mantra.  I gave the advice hundreds of times as a physician assistant.  We all know that both are needed to help us weather the common cold.  But why?  The need for fluid comes back to helping our bodies rid themselves of those pesky viral progeny:  secretions thinned by fluids (water, hot tea, soup, etc.) are easier to expel.  Rest is important because sleep mode helps our immune system combat the infection.  So taking a rest with a bottle of water at the bedside is not only mom’s remedy, it’s just what the doctor ordered.

My daughter sounds like a tree frog.  My son has gone through a whole box of tissues.  Why are their symptoms different?  And yet, sometimes there’s a family member that doesn’t even catch the cold.  Each of us is a unique individual, and it follows that a virus can affect each of us differently, explains Dr. Bob McCown on  A certain virus may infect one person’s nasal passages but the same virus may cause a sore throat in another.  And due to past illnesses, we develop a our own set of antibodies, so our body’s response to the same virus may be different for this reason, too.  And don’t forget medical history, says Dr. McCown; asthma, for example, can affect how a person exhibits cold symptoms.

So what cold remedies are best?  Next week, I’ll explore this topic in detail.  (But for now, know that rest and fluids top the list.)


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