13 Things We Bet You Didn’t Know About the Common Cold
Your sniffles and coughs are more complicated than you thought.
First, why do we call it the “common cold”?
Common implies that there’s a single ordinary pathogen to blame for your runny nose, coughing, and mild fatigue. Actually, there’s a huge array of viruses—more than 200 of them—that induce colds, points out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and each with its own means of evading your body’s defenses. For this reason alone, it’s unlikely that a catchall “cure for the common cold” will ever be found. These are crazy cold symptoms you probably never knew about.
The chilly part is complicated
As for the “cold” part, well, it’s complicated. Scientists don’t know for sure whether low temperatures affect a virus’s pathogenicity, but Cleveland Clinic experts theorize that colds are more prevalent in winter in part because we tend to spend more time indoors, in close quarters, with infected people and surfaces. These are likely the most important risk factors, but some studies demonstrate that immune response can be lower.
It dries out protective barriers
On top of this, sucking up dry winter air dries out the protective mucus that lines your nasal cavities. When that happens, your body can’t do its job of catching potentially dangerous microbes before they reach your respiratory system. “The body fights back by secreting more mucus to mechanically flush out the virus,” says Evangeline Lausier, MD, an adjunct assistant professor at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, North Carolina. So don’t blame your runny nose on the cold: That’s your own body telling you it’s fighting back. (You can help your mucus win this fight by drinking lots of fluids.) Try these tricks to make a cold less miserable.
We get colds more often than we might realize
Adults suffer an average of two to three each year, reports the CDC. and some children get more. They’re costly too. In the United States, a 2012 survey found that colds decreased productivity by a mean of 26 percent. Another survey estimated the total cost of lost productivity to be almost $25 billion each year.
The best cold medicine is free: rest
When you get sick, your body doesn’t want to do anything other than tackle the virus. If you do ignore the symptoms and go about your normal routine, the cold can have an even more negative impact on your health—and your brain. In a study of nearly 200 people published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, researchers found that those with colds reported poor alertness, a negative mood, and psychomotor slowing—their thought processes were muddied, and their reaction times were slower than those of healthy folks. (This is how long a cold lasts.)
Try not to rest while lying flat on your back
That can make things worse because gravity may cause the congestion in your nasal passages to drip down your throat, making it sore and causing a cough. Coughing while lying flat isn’t very comfortable, and it can keep you awake. Instead, prop yourself upright with pillows to “reduce the cough receptor irritation in the back of the throat,” Dr. Lausier says. This can also help move that mucus along and make it easier for you to breathe.
Another cost-free way to get better quicker?
Find a caring friend or relative to nurse you. A 2009 study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed that patients who rated their doctors with a perfect score on an empathy questionnaire were sick one day less than patients with less sensitive doctors. Patients with the most empathetic doctors also showed double the levels of IL‑8, a protein molecule the body releases to fight colds. More recent research published in the journal Patient Preference and Adherence on doctor empathy and the immunity in prostate cancer patients confirmed that, yes, caregivers who can feel your pain help boost your immune response.
Do a bit of light exercise
Although your body needs rest, Dr. Lausier says an excellent way to boost your immune system is with a bit of light exercise. It’s not a surprise that regular exercise helps you fight back against germs. A review of research published in the Canadian Journal of Medicine showed that regular moderate-intensity exercise may help prevent a cold; a more recent review published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science found a strong link between regular exercise and a strong immune system. One explanation, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, may be that exercise helps flush germs out of the lungs and airways.
Chicken soup might really work—though your mom’s special recipe isn’t the reason. In fact, most any clear soup helps because the warm liquid may ease congestion and increase mucus flow, reports the Mayo Clinic. “I think chicken soup is great for hydration—hot liquids, salt, and electrolytes,” Dr. Lausier says.
Don’t rely on vitamin C
Taking vitamin C supplements to prevent colds won’t help much, according to experts at Harvard Medical School. But they do point out that some research indicates it may help reduce the time you spend sick by roughly a day. You can read more about taking vitamin C for colds here.
Zinc, on the other hand, may reduce symptoms. Recent studies have shown that zinc lozenges or syrup can reduce the length of a cold by one day, especially if taken within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms. “Zinc is necessary for the immune system to perform, so yes, you can definitely up the dose during the onset of a cold,” says Jonny Bowden, PhD, a book author and self-described nutrition myth buster. Of course, you should check with your doctor first to make sure it won’t interfere with any of your medications.
Wash your hands a lot
The viruses that cause colds can survive up to 24 hours or longer outside the human body, so give your hands a good scrubbing after touching that doorknob or kitchen faucet at work. The National Institutes of Health advises disinfecting doorknobs, TV remotes, and faucet handles regularly; some research suggests that people with cold viruses contaminate 40 percent to 50 percent of the surfaces in their homes. Here’s how to make sure you’re not washing your hands wrong.
Gargle, gargle, gargle
Grandma was right: Gargling can help, maybe even as a preventive measure. One of the only studies on gargling and colds—done in 2005 in Japan—revealed that volunteers who gargled regularly got 40 percent fewer colds compared to people who didn’t gargle. To soothe a sore throat, experts at the Mayo Clinic advise gargling with one quarter to one half of a teaspoon of salt mixed with eight ounces of warm water. These are silent signs that stress is making you sick.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Common Cold"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Common cold"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others"
- Current Medical Research and Opinion: "Impact of cough and common cold on productivity, absenteeism, and daily life in the United States: ACHOO Survey"
- Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine: "Productivity losses related to the common cold"
- Brain, Behavior, and Immunity: "Effects of the common cold on mood, psychomotor performance, the encoding of new information, speed of working memory and semantic processing"
- Harvard Medical School: "Can vitamin C prevent a cold?"
- Family Medicine: "Practitioner Empathy and the Duration of the Common Cold"
- Patient Preference and Adherence: "Effects of doctors’ empathy abilities on the cellular immunity of patients with advanced prostate cancer treated by orchiectomy: the mediating role of patients’ stigma, self-efficacy, and anxiety"
- American Journal of Medicine: "Moderate-intensity exercise reduces the incidence of colds among postmenopausal women"
- Canadian Medical Association Journal: "Prevention and treatment of the common cold: making sense of the evidence"
- Medline Plus: "Exercise and immunity"
- Journal of Sport and Health Science: "The compelling link between physical activity and the body's defense system"
- Mayo Clinic: "Cold remedies: What works, what doesn't, what can't hurt."
- Cochrane Library: "Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold"
- Mayo Clinic: "Zinc for colds: The final word?"
- National Health Service: "How long do bacteria and viruses live outside the body?"
- American Thoracic Society Journals: "Rhinovirus Infections in the Upper Airway"
- American Journal of Preventative Medicine: "Prevention of upper respiratory tract infections by gargling: a randomized trial"