Medical Note: The common cold

Over the years, scientists have engineered vaccines for some of the most widespread and devastating diseases, including polio, tuberculosis, and smallpox. But even modern medicine is no match for one of the most prevalent ailments: the common cold.

Though the common cold is usually a minor affliction, its cumulative effects are severe. Adults contract two to four cold viruses a year, while children suffer anywhere from six to 12.

In 1996, the National Center for Health Statistics reported that approximately 22 million student sick days were cold-related.
The common cold isn’t just a virus — it’s about 200 different viruses. Each virus has a unique set of antigens, chemicals that cause a response from the immune system.

Depending on their severity, cold symptoms may vanish after two days or persist for up to two weeks. These symptoms, including difficulty breathing through the nose, headache, cough, and sore throat, are actually caused by the body’s own immune system.

When nasal cells succumb to a common cold virus, white blood cells arrive at the area of infection and release various immune system chemicals.

Scientists suspect that these emissions cause the symptoms associated with the common cold.

The common cold is not without its myths. Though exposure to winter climates is often associated with catching a cold, there are no data to support such a correlation. In reality, cold weather’s only effect is that it inspires more people to stay indoors, thus encouraging the spread of germs.

Traditionally, unhealthy habits in diet and exercise have also been linked to increasing an individual’s susceptibility to the common cold.

However, current available research suggests that poor diet and exercise are unrelated, unlike stress, nasal allergies, and menstrual cycles, which have been linked as causes.