We’re more than a decade into the 21st century, and scientists are no closer to that most elusive goal: a cure for the common cold. If anything, cold viruses seem more formidable than ever.
Until recently, researchers thought there were about 100 varieties of rhinoviruses, the most common cause of the common cold. Now, using advanced screening tests, they’ve discovered a whole new group of rhinoviruses. “It’s beginning to look as if there may be as many as 200” cold viruses, says cold expert J. Owen Hendley, MD, a professor of medicine at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
When it comes to what the average person believes about colds, there seems to be as many misconceptions as cold medicines on a drugstore shelf. And now that the winter cold and flu season is in full swing, we turned to Thomas Tallman, DO, an emergency medicine physician and cold and flu expert at the Cleveland Clinic, to set us -- and you -- straight on prevention and treatment.
The sheer number of different cold viruses is the reason we keep catching colds, season after season. Americans average three to four colds a year, surveys suggest. Children average six rhinovirus infections a year. (That explains why people who have kids or spend a lot of time with them are at heightened risk of catching colds.) But Hendley, who has been studying cold transmission for more than two decades, says there are simple ways to improve your odds of avoiding the season’s scourge.
How to Avoid Getting a Cold
Even if they haven’t found a cure for colds, researchers have learned plenty about how cold viruses spread. Coughing and sneezing are still the top ways of giving someone else your cold. People can breathe in the germs from your cough or sneeze. Rhinoviruses can also be spread by touching contaminated surfaces, shaking hands, and other personal contact. If you get cold viruses on your fingers, you might touch your nose or eyes -- the two places the virus can most easily enter your body. From there, cold viruses quickly reach nasal passages, where they take hold and begin multiplying.
Hardy Cold Viruses Abound: Don’t Touch!
“Rhinoviruses can survive on doorknobs, table tops, shopping cart handles, and other surfaces for 24 hours or more,” Hendley says.
In one ingenious experiment, Hendley and his colleagues had cold sufferers spend the night in a local hotel room and then asked them to identify what they’d touched during their stay; 35% of everything they touched -- including door handles, pens, light switches, TV remote controls, faucets, and telephones -- turned out to be contaminated with a cold virus.