Question of the Week

January 23, 2006


It's official. It is cold and flu season.

"We call it the 'common cold' for good reason. There are over one billion colds in the United States each year. You ... will probably have more colds than any other type of illness. Children average 3 to 8 colds per year. They continue getting them throughout childhood. Parents often get them from the kids. It‚s the most common reason that children miss school and parents miss work. Children usually get colds from other children. When a new strain is introduced into a school or day care, it quickly travels through the class."

Whether child, teen, or adult: if people are sharing an environment (like a classroom) with others who are sick, germs travel quickly and easily from one person to the next.

"Sneezing or coughing produces more droplets and helps to spread the infection. Touching infected surfaces, such as door handles or when shaking hands, and then passing the virus from the hands to the mouth is another route of infection for viruses. Infected people can spread the viruses from two days before the symptoms of the illness start and up to four days afterwards. Colds can occur all year round but are more common in the winter months."

It is easy to see how the germs are spread around a room when a sick person is coughing or sneezing. Sometimes, it is not so easy: maybe a person carrying a cold virus blows his/ her nose during class. Not being able to leave the lesson to wash up, the germs stay on his/ her hands for the rest of the class. The infected person then has contact with desks, pencils, chairs, homework papers, door handles, and friends....

"Both colds and flu can be passed through coughing, sneezing, and touching surfaces such as doorknobs and telephones. So it's wise to make a habit of washing your hands and to teach children to do the same. This helps you prevent spreading respiratory infections and picking them up from someone else."

With viruses everywhere, one can either be paranoid or prepared. Certain factors can increase the risk of catching a cold. At the same time, avoiding those factors can reduce the risk.

"Air that's dry - indoors or out - can lower your resistance to infection by these viruses, though. So can allergies, lack of sleep, stress, not eating properly, or hanging out with someone who is smoking. Being around people with colds makes you more likely to catch one yourself, of course. ... People who smoke are more likely to catch a cold than people who don't - and their symptoms will probably be worse, last longer, and are more likely to lead to bronchitis or even pneumonia."

Sometimes, these factors seem straightforward.

"DOES GETTING WET OR CHILLED CAUSE A COLD? No!!  Many different types of viruses, which are present in your nose and throat, cause colds.  You are more likely to get colds or other infections when you don't get enough sleep, eat poorly, or spend time with people who have colds.  These conditions can reduce your resistance to infection, making it more likely for you to get sick.  Getting wet won't necessarily give you a cold, since the cold virus must also be present."

Sometimes, looking a little deeper is required.

"Scientists say they have the first proof that there really is a link between getting cold and catching one. Staff at the Common Cold Centre in Cardiff took 180 volunteers and asked half of them to keep their bare feet in icy water for 20 minutes. They found 29% developed a cold within five days, compared with only 9% in the control group not exposed to a chill. ... 'When colds are circulating in the community, many people are mildly infected but show no symptoms,' Prof Eccles said. 'If they become chilled, this causes a pronounced constriction of the blood vessels in the nose and shuts off the warm blood that supplies the white cells that fight infection. The reduced defences in the nose allow the virus to get stronger and common cold symptoms develop. Although the chilled subject believes they have "caught a cold" what has, in fact, happened is that the dormant infection has taken hold.'"

And sometimes, no matter how deep people look, they still may not find a definitive answer.

"Some people rely on vitamin C supplements, zinc lozenges, and echinacea to prevent and treat cold and flu symptoms. These remedies may make some people feel better. However, their health effects are unknown, says Linda Lambert, a program officer with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). No conclusive data has shown that large doses of vitamin C prevent colds; they may reduce the severity or duration of symptoms, but there is no definitive evidence. And the jury is still out on zinc. 'There are about an equal number of studies that say zinc helps as there are studies that say it doesn't,' Lambert says. As for echinacea, 'studies have been done of echinacea for preventing or treating colds and flu, but these studies were not rigorous or definitive and the products tested were diverse,' according to a written statement from Stephen Straus, M.D., director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health. 'These studies at best suggest that echinacea may be beneficial in the early treatment of colds and flu, but does not help prevent them.' Always tell your doctor about any supplements or herbal remedies you use, and don't overdo it. For example, taking too much vitamin C can cause diarrhea."

Even with all the uncertainty surrounding some methods of cold prevention, there are proven facts:

"The most important thing you can do to prevent catching a cold or the flu is to wash your hands often with soap and warm water, and avoid rubbing your eyes or nose. The number of viruses peak when cold symptoms begin, so you can pass viruses on before you develop cold symptoms. Use tissues instead of handkerchiefs to blow your nose so they can be thrown away."
The College of Family Physicians of Canada

Questions of the Week:
What can you do to reduce your risk of catching a cold? How can what you know about avoiding colds reduce your chances of catching other viral diseases? When it comes to staying healthy, what misconceptions do you think are most common among your peers? What do you think would be the best way to educate your peers and reduce (or eliminate) those misconceptions?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

[email protected]
Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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