With the change in seasons often comes an increase in sneezes, sniffles, coughs and sore throats. All of these symptoms are the unpopular side effects of the common cold. There is good reason that so many people talk about the common cold. Each year, adults will suffer from the common cold 2-3 times, and kids will become infected 4-6 times.
Finding a cure for the common cold would give everyone reason to celebrate because we all hate how it makes us feel. Understanding the science behind the cold will help you understand why you catch the cold and why it is so hard for scientists to stop it.
More than 200 different viruses, most of which are called noroviruses, cause the cold. The viruses do not actually cause your throat to be sore or your nose to be stuffed up. Instead, your body reacts to try to fight the invasion of the virus, and all your symptoms are your body’s way of trying to get rid of that virus. For example, when your body detects a virus, it will produce excess mucus to try to trap the virus before it enters other parts of the body.
Why is it called a cold?
To this day many people blame changing weather on causing colds. The science behind that is simple: There is none. Changing weather simply does not cause the common cold in any way. However, it is true that far more people suffer from the cold during colder weather than in warmer weather. Why is this? Well, there are several reasons.
The viruses that cause the common cold can live outside the body for several hours and sometimes as long as 48 hours. The viruses most often enter your body after you pick up a virus from an infected surface that you touch. Another common way to catch the cold is to breathe in the virus that is floating in the air after somebody sneezes or breathes around you.
The air is much drier in the winter than in summer. When somebody sneezes, the water droplets containing the virus shoot out of their body and float in the air. When the air is dry, the droplets start to evaporate and become lighter, which means they can float around in the air longer. The dry winter air also dries out your nasal passages. Moist nasal passages trap more viruses than dry nasal passages, so your body can be infected easier in the winter compared with summer. It also doesn’t help that during winter, everyone stays inside, sneezing and breathing the cold virus in small, enclosed places.
Not only does changing weather not cause the common cold, but being out in the cold does not cause you to become sick either. Being out in the cold might cause you to become worn out, can give you frostbite, will make your nose run (for different reasons — not because you are sick) and can make you miserable after a while. But it will absolutely not give you a cold.
Your nose will run in the cold because your body is using the mucus to warm up the air you are breathing in. Once you are back inside for a little while, your running nose faucet will turn off.
Fighting the cold
While scientists have cured many huge diseases, so far they have not been able to get a handle on the common cold. The reason is that the viruses that cause the common cold do not replicate like most DNA do.
When DNA replicates, there are proofreading mechanisms in place that try to prevent mutations. When the cold virus replicates, there are no attempts to proofread the process, so viruses mutate often. The cold virus today is not the same cold virus tomorrow. Therefore, scientists might find a cure for one virus, but by the time they do, the virus is very different and not affected by the treatment.
One thing is clear, though. Science has not been able to confirm any of the traditional treatments for the common cold. While filling your body with popular over-the-counter cold remedies probably won’t hurt you, there is little scientific evidence that any of them make much difference in preventing your cold. Want to know the only effective prevention according to science? Lots of hand-washing and staying away from sick people — sometimes it is the simple things that make the biggest difference!
Mike Szydlowski is science coordinator for Columbia Public Schools.
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