There are over 200 unique strains of a type of respiratory virus; we call them the “common cold.” Albeit prevalent, the cold is not well understood by the public. When asked to answer True-or-False questionnaires about the cold, only 20% of Grade 12 students scored 80% or above. About the same number of students scored 50% or below.
The following are the same questions posed to them.
True or False? Being cold or wet increases the chances of contracting a cold. Because people want to avoid the cold weather, they are often indoors and in close proximity to each other for long periods during the fall, winter, and rainy days during the spring. Since the common cold is caused by viruses and viruses are transmitted via hosts (humans) through direct contact or airborne droplets, which are more potent in confined spaces, it seems as though cold weather actually causes it. Some suggest that cold weather do make us more susceptible to the cold viruses by lowering our immune systems, but unless a person is dying of hypothermia and needs to put much of her energy into maintaining body temperature, she won’t become heavily susceptible.
True or False? Putting on extra clothing or covering can help “sweat out” a cold. The immune system works best at a slightly warmer temperature than 37 degrees. However, purposely heating up and sweating is counterproductive because sweating is used alleviate high body temperature. On the other hand, being warm and well rested leaves the body more energy and resources to fight off infections. Thus, keep warm, but don’t wrap yourself in unbearable heat.
True or False? You can catch a cold from a “flu” shot. The flu shot is a mixture of viruses that have been killed and cannot infect patients. Why would hospitals administer the shot if it did? However, patients may catch a cold before the shot takes effect. The immune system needs time to synthesize antibodies and specific T cells (which attack the virus) so patients are still vulnerable for a time after receiving a flu shot. In addition, patients may show symptoms, but it doesn’t necessarily mean a viral infection. Symptoms are the body’s natural way of defending against diseases. Thus, the body, after being introduced to virus particles, responds by coughing or sneezing, as though trying to expel a real infection. The purpose of the flu shot is to introduce patients’ white blood cells to different kinds of viruses in circulation at that time so they be prepared when they actually encounter viruses. It’s like training how to box with a punching bag. There is no harm, and the immune system only gets stronger.
True or False? The cold can still infect people who are very healthy. There are over 200 strains of the cold virus, and even healthy immune systems can’t respond quickly to all of them. To illustrate, a powerful kingdom may manufacture spears, swords, axes, and shields and those may be enough to fight off most armies. But if the enemy attacked with guns, then even a great kingdom may fall. Instead, the immune system battles with the virus, learns its specific weakness, and manufactures some ballistic missiles to kill it.
True or False? Chicken soup and honey can help fight off a cold. Chicken soup warms (and thus speeds up) the mucus running through the nose, which limits the time the cold virus is in contact with the nasal lining, thus reducing infection. In addition, drinking fluids dilutes the blood and the cold virus, which makes it harder for the virus to find and surround target cells. Honey helps fight off a cold because it is very hypertonic (which means it is very concentrated – because it is very sweet). When honey runs down the throat, water aggregates around it to dilute it, which is a natural tendency of water (called “osmosis”). All organisms need water, and if bacteria and microorganisms touched honey, the little amount of water they contain would have a tendency to leave their bodies due to osmosis to dilute the honey. Thus, the microorganisms dry out and die.
The common cold may be so misunderstood because many don’t take the time to think about what they hear from family, friends, or sometimes-misinformed media. However, through the application of some basic scientific knowledge and critical thinking, the truth will come much closer.