The Not So Common Cold

Fighting Off the Cold

You know the signs – stuffy nose, congestion, sore throat. Whether it’s you, your spouse, or your children, when that nasty cold bug bites, you could be in for weeks of misery as it leaps from person to person. As the busy chief executive officer of your family unit, you need the latest intelligence on avoiding and treating colds. Since the lunar landing of 1969, people have been asking, “If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we cure a common cold?”

By Jan Hamilton Powell

First, “common” is not a synonym for “simple.” The world’s most widespread illness – affecting billions every year – the common cold is anything but simple, as you probably realized the last time you were up late with a congested child.

What triggers a cold?

A cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory system and may be caused by up to 200 different viruses. The most common of these are known as rhinoviruses, triggering some 30 to 50 percent of colds. If we know the source, why can’t modern science zap those cold bugs dead?

Recent research offers a new perspective. Dr. Michael Wood, a Chattanooga Memorial Health Partner internal medicine physician at Memorial Plaza, says, “The symptoms of the common cold are actually caused by inflammatory mediators released by one’s own body in response to the viruses, rather than the viruses themselves.” In attempting to fight off the virus, our own immune systems cause the sneezing, the stuffy heads, and the sore throats. We literally make ourselves sick.

This new information comes from the first comprehensive genomic study of the common cold conducted by Proctor & Gamble, the University of Calgary, and University of Virginia, published in the November 1, 2008, online issue of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. The study’s gene chip technology sounds like the classic sci-fi film, Fantastic Voyage, about an expedition through the human body by miniaturized scientists in a molecular submarine. Cool, yes. But you’re probably more interested in when you can have your family inoculated. “No cold vaccine is likely anytime soon,” reports Dr. Wood, “But this new knowledge can lead to better treatments.”

The study provides solid evidence that viperin, an antiviral compound produced by the body, is useful in fighting rhinovirus. There were also promising results regarding the impact of antioxidants and vitamin D levels on cold symptoms. Using these keys, researchers hope to find treatments to balance out the immune system’s frantic “overdrive” response to viruses. The desired result could lessen the intensity and duration of symptoms.

Starve a fever, feed a cold?

Promising scientific research may not comfort you when your family is working on the fourth box of tissues in a week. What’s the answer? In an episode of the 1960’s sitcom, The Beverly Hillbillies, Granny claimed to have a cure for the common cold. Banker Drysdale dreamed of big profits, but Granny’s “cure” turned out to be the age-old wisdom of plenty of fluids and bed rest.

To Granny’s advice, Dr. Allyson Cornell, a family practice specialist with Erlanger East Comprehensive Care, would add the use of a humidifier, and for adults, medications such as analgesics, antihistamines, and decongestants. For children, Dr. Cornell cautions, “It’s best to check with your child’s pediatrician before choosing any over-the-counter medication, as choices will vary by your child’s age.”

Dr. Cornell advises reading the labels and talking with your physician or pharmacist regarding a drug’s possible impact on prescription medications or medical conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes. Children under 12 should not be given aspirin because of the possibility of developing the very serious Reye’s syndrome. Some research indicates both aspirin and acetaminophen can actually suppress certain immune responses and in turn increase nasal stuffiness.

Both doctors label antibiotics as “ineffective” and even dangerous, given the rapidly emerging resistance to antibiotics in general. Dr. Wood also cautions against relying on popular “natural” choices such as zinc, Echinacea, and vitamin C, as there is little proof of effectiveness.

How about a nice warm bowl of chicken soup as a possible cure? No reason not to try it. But a hot drink of fruit cordial may be the better bet, based on research done by Cardiff University’s Common Cold Centre in Britain and published in the clinical journal, Rhinology, in December 2008. The study showed a commercially produced cordial apple and blackcurrant drink can provide “immediate and sustained relief” from cold symptoms such as chills, coughing, sneezing, fatigue, and nasal stuffiness.

While he points to prescription nasal inhalers as a treatment, Dr. Wood states,

According to Dr. Cornell, “The common cold is considered a self-limiting illness, meaning no medications are required for treatment. The symptoms should resolve within seven to 10 days.”

And if they don’t? See your doctor, Dr. Cornell suggests, for you may have something more serious than a cold. Call your pediatrician if a child with a cold develops a high fever, acts unusually drowsy, refuses to eat, cries a lot, holds their ears or stomach, or wheezes.

Until science develops that vaccine or fast-acting treatment, the best defense against the common cold lies in limiting the spread. For cold prevention, Drs. Cornell and Wood both place regular hand washing with soap and water at the top of their lists, along with covering coughs and sneezes, preferably into tissues or elbows and not one’s hands. The Centers for Disease Control’s website (www.cdc.gov), advises following strict disinfectant guidelines and not sharing items such as cups, glasses, and utensils. It is also a good idea to disinfect doorknobs, telephones, faucets, and other items frequently touched by numerous people.

Colds can strike at any time, although they are most prevalent during fall and winter. Dr. Wood points to the start of school as a likely cause, adding, “Cold weather brings folks indoors more, and we have more contact with those who have the virus. In winter, the relative humidity indoors is lower, and the cold viruses survive longer in this environment.”

If you’re thinking this is much ado about simple colds, you may want to consider the costs to our health and our wallets. Researchers have found that young children with frequent colds are 10 times more likely to develop asthma, and the rhinovirus plays a large role in asthma attacks and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, both serious problems for adults. In 2002, the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine reported that the common cold may cost American workers as many as 70 million lost workdays per year, with an economic cost of $25 billion in lost productivity.

For those managing the daily life and health of their families, it’s a good bet you’ll be fighting colds at various points throughout the year. Until modern science cracks the genetic code and develops a vaccine, arm yourself with tissues and disinfectant and rally the troops around hand washing.

Jan Powell is a native of Cleveland, Tennessee and now resides in Red Bank. She is a graduate of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where she earned a B.S. in Communications. Jan, is the author of 24 women’s fiction novels and has regularly written on a variety of medical topics.