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Don’t Let a Cold Get You Down

Americans get, on average, three to four colds a year. Here's how to protect yourself.
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WebMD Feature

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.

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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.

The study also showed how easily viruses can be picked up. When volunteers touched surfaces an hour after they’d been contaminated, the viruses spread to fingertips 60% of the time. A full 18 hours after contamination, transmission still occurred 33% of the time. 

A follow-up study by Hendley’s team, conducted in people’s homes, found just about the same percentage of contaminated surfaces.

The most obvious way to prevent picking up a cold, then, is keeping your fingers out of your eyes and nose. Most of us rub our eyes or touch our noses without thinking, however.

A more practical approach, Hendley says, is to wash your hands frequently. Rub your hands together with soap and water, scrubbing the fronts and backs and in between your fingers while singing "Happy Birthday" twice. That should send those nasty germs swirling down the drain. Hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol is a great backup plan if soap and water aren't available.

Regularly cleaning and disinfecting surfaces that are touched a lot can also help slow the spread of germs. Use a household disinfectant to clean countertops, desks, doorknobs, handles, phones, and toys.

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