Jul 16, 2010

Common Cold

I 'caught a cold' a few weeks back, (actually it turned out to be pneumonia, contracted from a visit to the doctor and it is gone now). Anyway, it started me thinking about where the name 'common cold' came from.

The name "common cold" came into use in the 1500s, because its symptoms seemed to appear in cold weather. Of course, we now know that a common cold is not limited to cold weather. It seems more prevalent, because people spend more time indoors in close proximity to each other, sharing the virus.

It is difficult to catch a cold by eating something infected with cold virus. The secretions of the mouth tend to kill the virus and any that survive end up in the stomach where gastric juices quickly destroy them. Also, kissing a person with a cold will not cause you to catch it. The quantity of virus on the lips and mouth are miniscule.

There is no cure, due to the hundreds of varieties of viruses, but many medicines can mask the symptoms until it runs its course, usually a week or less. People are most infectious during the first 24 hours, even if the symptoms have not begun to show.

Zinc, echinacea, vitamin C, garlic, eucalyptus, honey, lemon, menthol, steam, hot toddies, alcohol, Zicam, chicken soup, and many other "cures" have been repeatedly tested and have been scientifically proven to not prevent or shorten the duration of a cold. At best they provide some physical relief. People believe these are effective because of the varied nature of colds. Some viruses only last a few days, while others last for weeks.

Flu shots are designed to prevent the most common type of virus and are effective for only that type. Antibiotics do not cure a cold as they work on bacteria and most colds are caused by virus. However, if it is bacterial, such as half of pneumonia strains, it does help. Bacterial pneumonia usually comes on suddenly and viral types take some time to develop.

Imagine a person with a four-day form of cold. If he does nothing he will be well in four days, but he immediately drinks a gallon of orange juice. A couple of days later he feels great and tells everyone that the vitamin C in the juice killed his cold. His story quickly spreads and everyone starts drinking orange juice. The vitamin C didn't cure it.

On the other hand, people who try a cure and find that it doesn't work aren't as likely to report it, because most folks do not brag about failures. Human nature and the variability of the cold virus create a situation where beliefs in cold cures persist in spite of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.