The all-too-common cold

How you catch it, treat it, and (maybe) avoid it.

This past fall, when Donald Trump was interviewed about his presidential ambitions, he confessed that he hates the political tradition of shaking hands. Why? He doesn't want to catch a cold.

Whether or not anyone votes for him, Trump is right about one thing: The common cold frequently spreads through physical contact. (The other main transmission route is through the air—via sneezes and coughs.) And they don't call it "common" for nothing. Colds affect practically everyone, from billionaires to bicycle messengers.

The chief culprits behind colds are viruses (called rhinoviruses after the Greek word rhino, meaning nose). After setting up shop in your nose, the virus spreads throughout your upper respiratory tract, including your throat and the large airways in your lungs. But cold symptoms don't start until your immune system detects the virus and starts releasing chemicals called cytokines. The cytokines prompt blood vessels in your head, nose, and throat to dilate, making your tissues swell up, turn red, ache, and grow warmer. Hence the fever and sore throat. Cytokines also put your mucous membranes on overdrive, creating congestion, coughing, and a runny nose. While these symptoms are miserable for you, they're murder on viruses: If the heat doesn't get them, the mucus flushes them out.

If you choose to relieve your symptoms, don't worry; your body will still fight the virus. "There are antibodies, white blood cells, lots of other things that are doing the job," says Jeffrey Gelgisser, MD, a family practice physician at Group Health. Even if you take a cold remedy, "you're still allowing the body to do the majority of its work unimpeded."

Conventional remedies—decongestants, cough suppressants, and the like—can reduce symptoms, but they don't help you get well any sooner. That's where alternative therapies come in. Gelgisser says his patients often ask about vitamin C, echinacea, and zinc gluconate lozenges. He says there are conflicting reports on all three, but he believes they sometimes do speed recovery. And, he adds, don't forget rest and fluids. Rest supports your immune system; fluids aid in mucus production and prevent dehydration.

It's easy to confuse colds with more serious infections, such as flu and strep throat. Suspect flu if your whole body aches, you're too tired to get up, and you have a high fever. A severe sore throat with no nasal symptoms, but with fever and swollen glands in the neck, may indicate strep. Call the Group Health consulting nurse if you think you might need to see a health care provider.

To prevent colds, keep your immune system healthy with rest and plenty of water. Try to reduce stress; get enough exercise; eat properly. Frequent handwashing also helps. But refusing to shake hands? You might as well not breathe.

—Martin Stillion

Cold hard facts

Number of different cold viruses: more than 200

Average number of colds per year, for an adult:

2 to 4

For a child:

6 to 10
Amount spent annually in the United States on cold remedies: $3 billion
Reprinted from Northwest Health, Winter 2000