Let’s face it, the common cold ranks pretty high in the pantheon of annoying illnesses. It is nowhere near as aggressive or life threatening as pancreatic cancer for instance, but it creates just enough discomfort to significantly hinder your productivity and quality of life in the short term. As we probably all know from experience, constantly sneezing, getting the chills, feeling tired, and dealing with sinus pressure due to a cold or flu can make life pretty miserable for any of us. Thanks to modern science and medicine, we now have over the counter medications at our disposal to alleviate most of the uncomfortable symptoms of the common cold. There is a very important point to make here about over the counter cold/flu medications, and it goes something like this: the truth is that over the counter cold/flu medications merely alleviate the symptoms associated with the common cold and do not deal with the underlying cause. In plain english, while DayQuil or Sudafed might get you to stop sneezing and coughing all over the place for 4ish hours at a time while you fight off a cold, neither of them really do anything to correct the root cause that brought about the cold in the first place. I remember how “duped” I felt when I first learned this fact – “oh… no wonder the sinus pressure and sneezing bouts always return with a vengeance ~3.5 hours after my last dose” – I thought to myself. Regardless though, we should be thankful that we live in a time where we have remedies to quell the annoying symptoms of a cold. Can you imagine having to constantly deal with flu like symptoms all day every day for 10 straight days with no periods of relief while you try to be productive?
As far as the current state of medicine is concerned, a medication based cure for the common cold does not exist which is just plain weird. It is especially weird because the common cold has been around for a long long time, and we humans are usually good at finding cures for things that ail us since we hate discomfort. In the annals of history, the pattern is usually as follows: the longer a disease hangs around, the higher the chances that a brilliant member of our species will figure out how to cure it. Alright then, so it’s either the scientific community shunned the idea of studying the common cold because it was too boring, or there has to be a good scientific reason why it has proved so stubborn. Well, we know that scientists study the common cold because we have things like DayQuil and Sudafed. Thus, there must be a scientific explanation that accounts for how difficult it has proven to eradicate the common cold. To understand that, let’s start by detailing the mechanism through which we humans “catch” the common cold.
How do we “catch” the common cold?
Let’s get something out of the way from the get go… Despite what its name might insinuate, cold weather isn’t the cause of the common cold or the flu.
The common cold in scientific/medical parlance is referred to as an ”upper respiratory tract infection”. And yes, it means exactly what you think… the upper part of your body’s breathing apparatus is infected. You might be wondering what actually “does” the infecting here, and the answer to that would be something called a virus. By the way, the word virus is literally latin for poison. A virus is a tiny infective agent that usually consists of a nucleic acid (DNA or RNA) molecule encapsulated in a protein coat. Over half of the common colds we catch are caused by a type of virus called a rhinovirus. A virus can’t really do anything on its own until it infects a living host such as one of your living human cells. In that sense, a virus is like a little parasite which depends on the resources of a living thing in order to spring into action. Although viruses depend on the resources of another living thing to spring into action, some viruses can actually survive on their own for as long as 18 hours outside any living entity. This is why you can still catch a cold or the flu by touching a doorknob or a remote controller that was touched hours ago by someone suffering from a cold or the flu.
OK so say you touched a doorknob that your flu ridden spouse or sibling touched a couple of hours ago, and now you’ve got the initial symptoms of a sore throat and general tiredness. What happened on a molecular level? Well, after touching that doorknob, you probably either put your hand in your mouth (ate something), wiped your eyes (to get some lint or dust out), or picked your nose (gross!). Any one of those singular acts can give the virus you picked up from the doorknob access to your innards. As soon as the virus makes it into your system, it tries to gain access to one of your cells. Remember that by itself, a virus really can’t do much which is why it needs to somehow gain access to your cells. You might be wondering how anything gains access to a cell, and an answer to that riddle would be something called a cell surface receptor. Cell surface receptors act as the gatekeepers to the insides of a cell, selectively allowing in some vital materials to aid metabolic function, while keeping other things out which may negatively interfere with the cell’s machinery. To help you visualize this better, you can think of cell surface receptors as doors with keyholes that act as the gateway between the inside of the cell and the outside of the cell. When a part of an external molecule fits well with the cell surface receptor, it is like a key opening a lock, resulting in the external molecule gaining access to the interior of the cell.
Viruses have protein molecules on their surfaces and every so often, the surface proteins of a virus are a perfect fit for a cell surface receptor. As a result of this match, the virus can “trick” the cell into letting it in. Once the virus gains entry into the nucleus of the cell, it takes over the machinery of the cell and replicates itself thousands of times over.
If we were to anthropomorphize here, this process would be analogous to that “friend” who seemed nice at the outset and tricked you into letting them be part of your inner circle, only to find out when it was too late that he or she was nothing but trouble. Once inside the nucleus of a living cell, the virus will continue to replicate itself until said cell bursts open, releasing thousands of viruses into the body. This process continues as the newly synthesized virus clones infect other cells… and on and on. Both of us would have probably died a long time ago if this process were allowed to continue indefinitely each time either of us got a cold or the flu. Thankfully, most of us have badass immune systems that get really angry and fight like hell whenever any silly virus tries to take over our bodies.
How does the immune system fight off a cold?
When viral replication causes our cells to burst, a signal is sent through the body that “tells” the cells of the immune system that something is wrong. This unleashes some immune system “B cells” in search of the offending antigen. In the case of the common cold, the offending antigen would be the causative virus. Once the B cell detects the virus, it internalizes it and digests it. B cells are tough as nails and built for cellular warfare so a virus won’t be able to take over a B cell’s cellular machinery. After digesting the virus, the B cell will work together with another immune system cell known as a T cell to generate an antibody against the causative virus. This antibody created in defense to the cold or flu virus here is a Y-shaped protein that can seek out and bind specifically to the millions of other copies of the same virus that are now currently in your system. Once antibodies bind to a virus, they act as a beacon which recruits other organ systems and members of the immune system to eliminate the virus. This chain of events continues until the virus is completely eliminated from the system.
Interesting to note that when you have a cold and are sneezing all over the place as well as having to blow your nose every 2 minutes, it isn’t actually the virus that is causing those symptoms. Those symptoms are mostly caused by the effect of your own immune system fighting like hell in a bid to eliminate the virus from your body. So next time you get sick and are annoyed because you’re sneezing too often, take heart and know that your immune system is going to war on your behalf. Also interesting to note that once antibodies against a certain virus have been produced by your body, that same virus will never be able to cause you to get the common cold ever again. This is because the immune system will have developed a “memory” of that virus and will immediately “remember” and destroy it if it ever attempts a repeat performance. This is a big reason why babies and toddlers seem to get every single cold there is to get, while older people don’t catch the flu as often. Older people usually have much more “experienced” immune systems relative to those of babies and toddlers because older people have had time to fight off a lot more colds and develop an immune system “memory” for them as they’ve been alive for much longer.
Why do we keep getting colds?
Alright then, so if the same virus can’t cause any of us to get the same cold twice, why then do we continually succumb to the common cold throughout our lives? Well the answer to that question is because there are a ton of different viruses out there, and regardless of how “experienced” your immune system is, there is a good chance that you won’t have come in contact with all of them. As a result, you will probably still be vulnerable to a subset of them. There are a lot of viruses in our world because viruses often mutate into several different forms. There are many speculations as to why this is the case, but the one that is most striking to me is as follows. When a virus takes over cellular machinery in a bid to replicate itself, every so often, the cellular machinery makes a mistake by incorporating the “wrong” nucleic acid in the viral sequence. This usually culminates in a virus that is a variant of the original one (the word “variant” means “slightly different” in plain english). If this continues to happen over many millenia, I think you can see how there are just too many viruses for the immune system of any one human to have immediate defenses against. So that’s why you and I still get a cold once or twice a year.
What can we do to prevent the common cold?
The best defense for the common cold is to keep the causative viruses out of your system. Your skin already provides a pretty good barrier between the critters in the outside world (viruses and bacteria) and your vital internal organs and systems. However, your eyes, nose, and mouth still remain relatively easy targets for viral entry. You can make it as difficult as possible for a virus to gain entry into your system by doing the following:
- Wash your hands often: Make it a habit to wash your hands after each visit to the toilet or bathroom. You can also keep some hand sanitizer by your work space and use that regularly.
- Refrain from touching your face as much as possible: I really don’t know why, but all of us humans obsessively touch our faces. Next time you are in a meeting with a bunch of people at school or work, try counting how many times each person touches their face… I bet you’ll probably be surprised. Try and limit this apparently natural human tendency to as few touches as possible to reduce the chances of you accidentally picking up a virus and granting it access to your body by touching your nose, mouth, or eyes.
- Stay away from sick people: This one is difficult because most of us can’t just ignore our children or refuse to go to work because we don’t want to catch a cold. However, we can all try all that is within our power to avoid people we don’t necessarily have to be around when they have a cold.
- Wash your hands before you eat anything: This is especially important if you are eating a sandwich or something else that requires hand to mouth action with no utensils in between. The logic is simple, wash your hands first so you don’t run the risk of inadvertently shoving a virus right down your throat.
The other way we can protect ourselves from illness is to strengthen the immune system so that if a virus does break through, we can easily fight it off before all hell breaks loose. You can strengthen your immune system by doing the following:
- Eat foods that strengthen the immune system: Foods like ginger that reduce inflammation are great for strengthening the immune system. Green vegetables and fruits high in vitamin C (oranges, strawberries, kiwi, blueberries etc) are also good for the immune system.
- Exercise consistently: Fit and healthy people are usually better primed to fight off viruses and the like probably because their bodies are near a peak state of functionality. Beware though that if you are too fit, you can actually compromise your immune system because you are expending so much energy on the track, the court, or the gym. So yes, exercise is great, but going overboard can actually weaken your immune system. If you are a professional athlete, you should probably take good supplements to help your immune system function optimally.
- Take dietary supplements: Taking good multivitamins and fish oil supplements on a daily basis may help strengthen the immune system and prevent the spread of a viral infection.
- Sleep when you feel a cold coming on: We all have deadlines to meet and projects to complete but when you feel a cold coming on, the wisest thing to do is to stop what you are doing, find a comfortable mattress, and sleep for as long as you can. While you sleep, your body can devote extra resources towards fighting off the virus that is trying to bring you down.
Now that you have a clearer understanding of the common cold and the flu, you can take measures to protect yourself and those around you. Although it is unlikely that any of us will be able to completely banish the odd cold from our lives in any permanent way, we can all do our best to reduce the number of times we fall prey to it. From all of us here at chubaoyolu.org, take care of yourselves and each other.
Oyolu B.C. Ph.D.
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2 thoughts on “The nuisance also known as the common cold, and how to avoid it”
Hey Chuba, another great post, thanks!
Sleep is commonly cited as a “treatment” for illness – but does it really support faster recovery? What are your WBCs doing when you are active vs. when you are sleeping that takes them off-task of fighting viruses/bacteria?
Hello rmgst18 (would like to know your real name at some point). Yep sleep is great when you are sick because when you sleep, your body isn’t distracted by all the other metabolic functions it has to perform while you are awake. This means your body can now devote a lot more energy and resources towards empowering the immune system to get rid of the pathogen that is trying to take over your body. So it isn’t necessarily that your WBC are off task when you are awake, it is that your system can’t make more of them fast enough to combat the super fast spread of the virus. I hope this makes sense. Thanks for stopping by!