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How (Not) to Catch a Cold

Dec. 21, 2020 - Sheshe Giddens

Germs, germs, germs — they're everywhere. Unfortunately, we can't see them, which makes catching infectious illnesses, such as the common cold, well — common. More than 200 different viruses cause common cold symptoms, and fewer than 35% of them are rhinoviruses — the largest group of viruses that causes the cold.

Because there is no single virus responsible for the common cold, it's difficult to treat and easy to catch, especially because each type of virus flourishes in different conditions during different times of the year. That's part of the reason we have not come up with the elusive cure for this oh-so-common illness.

Like all viruses, these little rascals are super sneaky and excessively smart. Once they infect someone, they start replicating new little friends. And once enough of them show up, they start causing the very symptoms that help them spread from person to person. Every time the person coughs or sneezes, and thereby spreading mucus from the nose, the virus catches a free ride out of the body — the perfect mechanism for spreading viruses to others.

This survival mechanism is to the virus's advantage. As the body's immune system fights back, evicting the freeloading virus from the body, some of its friends will live on, starting the cycle again in someone who came into contact with the infected person's secretions. Yuck.

The common cold also has the distinction of being one of the primary reasons people go see their doctor during the winter season, said Dr. Vanessa Tilney, an internal medicine physician with Houston Methodist Primary Care Group.

"Patients may present with a combination of symptoms, such as a scratchy throat, sneezing, congestion, ear discomfort, cough, fever, a general achy feeling and/or fatigue. We seem to more frequently contract the common cold within the winter months, but you can actually get sick with it any time of year," said Dr. Tilney.

Unfortunately, the cold shares many symptoms with the flu and COVID-19, so patients may have concerns about what their actual diagnosis is. For this reason, doctor offices are taking precautions.

"Due to similarity in symptoms caused by well-known viruses, such as rhinovirus, parainfluenza, respiratory syncytial virus, influenza and now the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), we are having to screen patients prior to scheduling an appointment in person or via a virtual visit. This ensures the safety of our patients, staff and community."

Can You catch a cold from cold weather?

Because people usually catch more colds during the winter, hence the name "cold," people assume that the cold weather is responsible for making them sick (although most also seem aware that a virus is actually to blame).

However, we can't completely dismiss the role weather may play in the uptick in illness. Theories abound, including how cold weather brings more people indoors and near one another, and how being exposed to cold weather can affect some people's immune system. These factors — as well as the fact that many cold-causing viruses, especially rhinoviruses, flourish in colder weather — lead to more colds in the winter.

Can you give a common cold to others?

For starters, you must encounter a cold-causing virus to get the cold. Basically, there are two ways in which we get infected — through inhalation or physical contact.

A person who has caught a cold is usually contagious one to two days before symptoms appear. With respiratory infections, such as the cold, flu or COVID-19, an infected person can release contaminated droplets containing the virus into the air, via coughing, sneezing, talking, shouting or singing. These droplets can make direct contact with other people by either being inhaled or the virus landing on surfaces that others touch. Also, when infected individuals touch their eyes, nose or mouth and then touch a surface, they potentially transfer the virus to others who touch the same surface later. If those individuals touch their eyes, nose or mouth before washing their hands or using hand sanitizer, then they can possibly "catch" the cold.

"Fortunately, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the public has been inundated with information regarding precautionary measures to help reduce the spread of germs and prevent transmission to others. We have learned about how respiratory droplets carry viruses and how we can infect ourselves and others through touching contaminated surfaces and subsequently our face," said Dr. Tilney. "Prevention is key. It is important for all health care providers to continue to educate and keep people informed of the facts."

Hopefully, what we have learned from the pandemic about hand washing, wearing masks, avoiding touching our faces, etc., will help reduce the number of people affected by respiratory illnesses like the cold. Even while taking precautions, we mustn't let our guard down. We are likely to catch a cold from people at home and sometimes it is difficult to regulate the potential for exposure, especially with children around.

How children spread germs

From infancy to preschool, children usually get eight to 10 colds a year, while school-age children get between six to eight colds a year. And kids are amazing at sharing those germs with one another — and the adults who care for them due to close contact. It can be difficult to get small children to cover their mouths with the inside of their elbows when they cough or sneeze, as well as to wash their hands before and after putting their fingers in their mouths and noses, rubbing their eyes, or touching random surfaces.

Moreover, viruses can be transmitted through stool, so it's also important to thoroughly wash your hands after changing a sick child's diaper — or wear gloves when doing so.

How to avoid and treat the common cold

Remember to be cautious in closed spaces and when touching surfaces in high-traffic areas. A closed space with little air circulation, such as an elevator, can pose a problem because an infected person — who is either in the elevator with you or had previously been in the same cab — could have touched or left droplets on surfaces such as a call button or railing. Other high-touch surfaces, especially nonporous ones, such as an escalator handrail or doorknob and door handles, are other likely places to encounter the viruses left behind by others.

Here are a few cold hard facts from Dr. Tilney about getting relief from the oh-too-common cold:

  • Because the common cold is caused by a virus, we depend primarily on our immune system, proper nourishment, adequate rest, hydration and supportive treatments to get through the illness.
  • Certain combinations of over-the-counter medicines may be recommended, depending on the presenting symptoms. They can provide symptom relief to:

    • Reduce fever
    • Relieve pain
    • Relieve runny nose and sneezing
    • Suppress coughs
    • Thin mucus

 

"Hopefully, with those measures and time, a patient can typically recover within a period of seven to 10 days," says Dr. Tilney. "If you have a persistent fever or worsening symptoms, contact your primary care physician for further assessment."

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