Getting a cold is a miserable experience. It feels lousy, and it can slow you down. When I have a cold, I feel so rotten that I sometimes ask myself, “Why bother?” All my ambition vanishes. It’s remarkable, really.
The sneaky thing about colds is not that the symptoms are severe, but that they are not severe enough. During cold-and-flu season, I get sick often but never badly enough to stop working.
I push myself to get through the day, working in an uncomfortable fog, exposing others, and hoping in vain that relief will come soon.
An essay in a recent issue of the New Yorker on this subject spurred a bit of research and rumination. Here is what I found out:
- Most adult Americans get between two and four colds a year. (Children get more.) A typical cold lasts a week. That means the average person will spend as much or more time sore, tired, sneezing, and coughing as he will trying to enjoy his vacation.
- About a quarter of us don’t get colds at all — or don’t experience the symptoms of them. Another 25% suffer more often and longer — getting four to six colds a year with an average duration of two to three weeks.
- Colds are generally not transmitted through the air. Umpteen studies have established that (including a 1950 landmark study by Sir Christopher Andrewes).
- Neither can you get a cold by kissing (proven at the University of Wisconsin in 1984).
- Generally, the hands are the transmitters (1973, University of Virginia).
- Microscopic mucus drops deposited on inanimate surfaces, such as doorknobs, utensils, etc., can be infectious for three hours or more.
- The average person touches his eyes and nose, the primary way cold viruses enter the system, dozens or even hundreds of times a day. (And, speaking of touching your face — my research uncovered this unfortunate fact: Half of all U.S. adults pick their noses at least once every hour.)
- There are at least five major viruses (not just rhinovirus — the best-known one) that can cause colds.
Here’s ETR editor Craig Ballantyne with his thoughts on how to avoid a cold.
If you get a cold, there’s no proven way to get rid of it quickly, but there is some evidence that megadoses of vitamin C may lessen and shorten its hold on you. Echinacea and goldenseal, two popular herbal remedies, may also help, but there is less scientific evidence of that.
Contrary to popular wisdom, there is no evidence that zinc will do anything. Nor is there reason to believe that drinking plenty of liquids is good for you. These findings have been reported by, among others, Dr. Jack Gwaltney, who has been studying colds for more than 40 years.
To relieve symptoms, Gwaltney takes ibuprofen and an antihistamine (the old variety that makes you drowsy). He believes you can’t do much better than that.
There are two new groups of drugs that offer hope. One, called capsid-binding agents, has shown the ability to shorten and lessen symptoms for the patients studied. So has something called 3C protease inhibitors. Both of these treatments will become available — and probably heavily promoted — in the years ahead.
The best approach to cold viruses is to avoid getting them. Here is how you can do that:
- If you are around infected people, wash your hands constantly and wipe down things that they touch. (This seems extreme, but it seems to work for AK, my personal assistant, who — when I am suffering — is always running around the office wiping things down and washing her hands. She almost never gets sick.)
- Make it a habit to use hand lotion that contains pyroglutamic acid, an antiseptic skin cleanser that not only kills most cold viruses that have already been deposited on the skin but can also kill viruses introduced hours later.
- Keep your immune system strong by taking good, natural supplements, including plenty of antioxidants, and avoiding foods that create a taxing and sometimes toxic effect on your body. (Many starches fall into this category.)
- Get plenty of sleep. I went for two years without getting a cold. It happened to coincide with a period of time when I was forcing myself to get my seven hours of sleep every night. A doctor friend of mine has had the same experience.
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