Since we know how you get colds, we also know how you can prevent them, or at least minimize their number.
Stay away from people with colds; wash your hands after touching someone who has a cold or something they’ve touched; keep your hands away from your face.
If you have a cold, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, preferably with a tissue and not your hand. Stay away from people who have asthma or other kinds of lung ailments during the first three days of your cold, because that’s when you’re most contagious. Don’t smoke or breathe secondhand smoke, you don’t catch cold that way, but smoke makes colds worse. It is, obviously, not always practical or possible to follow all of this advice.
Once you have a cold, there’s nothing you can do to make it go away faster. There are those more or less effective antiviral medicines described above, but none of them works for cold viruses.
Still, you can take various medicines that will provide some relief from the symptoms, and drinking plenty of liquids will keep you hydrated and therefore keep the mucus flowing out of you. Acetaminophen, Tylenol, can help you feel less achy and more comfortable, and is less likely to give you a stomachache than aspirin, which can also be used, but not for kids under 18.
Researchers have found that aspirin increases the amount of rhinovirus shed in nasal secretions, which may make you more of a hazard to others than if you don’t take aspirin. Decongestants and antihistamines can help unblock a stuffed nose and relieve a cough, although the newer non-sedating antihistamines aren’t as effective as the ones that make you sleepy. None of these will shorten the time it takes to get better.
Some people think that inhaling steam is a good treatment for colds, assuming that increasing the temperature of the nasal membranes will inhibit the replication of virus.
Steam may temporarily relieve the symptoms of congestion, but studies have demonstrated that it has no effect on other cold symptoms or on the amount of viral shedding in people afflicted with rhinoviruses. Researchers have widely studied interferon-alpha as a cold cure and given in daily doses by nasal spray, it does appear to have an effect in preventing illness. But interferon causes unacceptable side effects, including nosebleeds, and does nothing for a cold already in progress.
How about a vaccine for the cold? Not very likely. With more than 200 viruses that can cause colds, a single vaccine can’t do much. Add to that the genetic changes that all viruses undergo, and you have what appears to be an insurmountable barrier to the creation of an effective vaccine.
There is a continuing effort, however, to create an antiviral medicine that will work against cold viruses. Most recently, one called pleconaril has been developed. It appears to inhibit the reproduction of many different rhinoviruses. The company that makes it, a small pharmaceutical firm called ViroPharma, has been testing the drug in clinical trials for some time and is almost ready to seek approval from the Food and Drug Administration to manufacture the medicine.
Kids under five have the most colds of any age group, probably because they have developed few immunities to the cold viruses, and more boys under five get colds than girls. By the time they’re older than five, girls have colds slightly more often than boys. This slight sex difference persists throughout life, with women having slightly more colds than men. Teenagers and adults have colds about two to four times a year; younger kids have them six to eight times.
The American Lung Association would like to disabuse you of some received wisdom about colds, and we see no reason not to help them:
• Vitamin C has not been proven to prevent or cure colds.
• Zinc lozenges, gels, and nasal sprays have not been proven to cure colds.
• Exposure to extreme cold does not lead to colds (or the flu).
• Going to work or school with a cold will not prolong the symptoms.
• “Starve a cold and feed a fever” is not good advice. You should increase your intake of fluids when you have a cold, with a fever or not, and eat enough to satisfy your appetite.
• There is no evidence that herbal treatments like echinacea work to cure colds.
• Alcohol, in the form of a hot toddy or otherwise, is not good for a cold and should be avoided.
• Chicken soup possesses no curative properties. It does, however, taste good, and liquids are good for you when you have a cold.
Do you just have a cold, or is it the flu? Although you can’t know for sure without a viral culture or serology test, the symptoms differ, and you can usually make an educated guess. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has put it in a table.
Although research continues into promising treatments for colds and vaccine technology is constantly improving, we have not in any sense “conquered” the viruses that cause colds and flu. They are now, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future, our constant unwelcome companions.