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Flu Breakthrough: The Search for a Universal Vaccine

Tired of having to get a different flu shot -- or two -- every year? Someday one shot may protect us against all the strains.

The Search for a Cold Cure continued...

The question Liggett is trying to answer now is whether the viral strains he's analyzed evolved many years ago, or whether repeated combining of DNA -- called recombination -- by various strains is causing new ones to keep popping up all the time. "If it freely recombined and we know that people can be infected with two viruses at one time, there would be an almost infinite number of strains. That would be a bad thing," he says.

Liggett has made great strides, but he admits there is still a lot to learn about the cold virus, such as how the virus varies from person to person and from season to season, and which strains are most virulent.

His next step is to do more extensive DNA analysis on rhinoviruses taken from 3,000 people to determine which group or groups of viruses might be worth pursuing for new therapies. If he's able to figure out which strains are coming back from year to year, and why some virus strains are more infectious than others, Liggett is hopeful that highly effective cold treatments might one day be a reality.

That day might be a long time coming, though. Some experts, including Ronald Eccles of the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University in Wales, think the common cold is one nuisance we might never be able to shake. "We may be able to control some of these viruses," Eccles says, "but I believe that as long as we have noses, there will be viruses that cause colds."

Myths About the Common Cold

There's still a lot of folk wisdom circulating about the common cold -- some of which is true and some of which is not.

Chicken soup. Grandma was pretty close on this one. So-called Jewish penicillin slows the activity of immune substances that stimulate mucus production, helping clear up stuffy noses and coughs. Other cold-fighting nutritional remedies include a hot drink, or even a hot pepper, to soothe a sore throat.

Touch-and-go. Do cold viruses actually live on surfaces? Yes -- the rhinovirus can linger on countertops, door handles, and other frequently touched surfaces for hours after being touched by someone with a cold. If you’re the next person to touch one of those surfaces and you put your fingers in your eyes, nose, or mouth, you could be in for a nasty infection.

"C" for colds. Vitamin C was once touted as the cure-all for the common cold, but the research just doesn’t hold up. It might slightly shorten and weaken colds, but vitamin C won't stop you from getting sick in the first place, and large doses can cause side effects like upset stomach.

Feed a cold. The first part of this old wives' tale might have some truth to it. A Dutch study found some evidence that eating a meal boosts the immune response needed to fight off the cold virus. And no, you don't want to starve a flu. Plus, it's especially important to get fluids.

Remedy reality. Can echinacea and zinc cold remedies help you avoid a cold? The evidence is mixed, but overall, research doesn't support the use of either for the prevention of colds. And steer clear of zinc nasal products; the FDA warns they might permanently reduce your sense of smell.

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Reviewed on December 23, 2009

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