The Cold War

Medicine can treat the symptoms of a cold, but the best prevention is good, frequent hand washing.

Medicine can treat the symptoms of a cold, but the best prevention is good, frequent hand washing.

By Natalie Hollingshead,

Keep the sniffling and coughing to a minimum at your house this winter.

Giving colds the cold shoulder during chilly winter months can be difficult.
Most adults suffer two to four colds a year, while children average six to 10 a year. That equals millions of stuffy noses and sore throats, all caused by any one of a hundred different viruses.
Each viral variation can be caught at home, work or play, making avoiding winter colds a nearly impossible task, says Ryan Jones, M.D., chief resident at Utah Valley Family Medicine Center.
“They’re hard to prevent because they are caused by so many viruses,” Dr. Jones says. “And you can get re-infected with the same virus.”
Contracting a cold virus can happen anywhere. A sneeze or cough from a cold sufferer emits particles that linger on surfaces or in the air. Touching a surface covered with tainted particles and then contacting the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose and eyes can pass a cold, Dr. Jones says.
“It is contracted by hand-to-hand contact,” he says.
That means a mother’s warning to “put on a coat so you won’t catch a cold” isn’t necessarily true. The plunging mercury can weaken the immune system and make the body more vulnerable to viruses, but the chilly weather itself isn’t the cause of a cold, Dr. Jones says.
“The main reason people catch more colds in the wintertime is because we’re indoors more,” he says.
Indoors, viruses spread rapidly and are passed to numerous surfaces. Public areas like daycares or elementary schools are hard to keep germ-free, making children especially vulnerable to colds.

While it may be impossible to avoid winter colds entirely, it is possible to limit exposure to them.
The best prevention against a cold is good, frequent hand washing, says Dan Tovey, MD, medical director for the physicians division of IHC in Utah County.
‘Wash your hands anytime you think you’ve come into contact with a surface that could be infected,” he says. “The transmission of the cold is through contact.”
Dr. Tovey says hands should be immersed in hot, running water for the same amount of time it takes to recite the alphabet.
Another way to avoid colds is by steering clear of sick people. It may be impossible for parents to avoid their sick children altogether, but it is wise to limit physical contact.
“Children are a big reservoir for the cold virus,” Dr. Tovey says. “For parents, anytime they see that their child has a runny nose, that’s the time to be vigilant. That may mean no kissing and washing hands every time they help with that nose.”
Getting plenty of rest also helps keep the immune system strong.

Treating a cold is difficult because there is no cure for the common cold.
“People want to come to the doctor to get something to kill it, but antibiotics won’t work,” Dr. Jones says. “Antibiotics work against bacteria, not against viruses.”
The cold virus has to run its course before it dies, and it may last one to two weeks.
Although doctors can’t treat a cold directly, they can treat the symptoms. Nasal decongestants, cough suppressants and anesthetic sprays are a few of the options for those suffering through a cold.
“You can treat the individual things that are making you feel bad, but you can’t kill that virus,” Dr. Tovey says.
If symptoms are still lingering after more than two weeks or conditions are worsening, it is time to see a doctor. Developing a fever, additional sinus pressure or shortness of breath are a few signs that a secondary infection may be present, Dr. Tovey says.
Secondary infections develop when congestion traps bacteria, giving it room to grow.
“You can develop a bacterial infection, but in general, those secondary conditions are the exception and not the rule for most colds,” Dr. Tovey says.
If the secondary infection is bacterial, antibiotics may help, he says.


Myth #1 Put on a coat or you’ll catch a cold
Although exposure to cold weather may weaken the immune system, the weather can’t actually “cause” someone to catch a cold. The common cold is a virus transferred through hand-to-hand contact.

Myth #2 Herbal supplements like Echinacea OR zinc are a reliable method of cold combat
Although supplements and vitamins may help prevent colds, the evidence isn’t conclusive, says Ryan Jones, MD, chief resident at Utah Valley Family Medicine Center. Researchers aren’t sure of the benefits or detriments, so consult a doctor before use.

Myth #3 Antibacterial soaps help prevent winter colds
Antibacterial products have their strengths, but it isn’t in preventing colds. The main reason? A virus — not bacteria — causes colds. Antibacterial soaps may be tough on bacteria, but they can’t kill a virus.



Natalie Hollingshead is a former magazine editor turned freelance writer and editor. She writes regularly about home, family, food and travel for a handful of publications, and is co-author of the book "Happy Homemaking” (Cedar Fort, 2012) with Elyssa Andrus. A native of Alberta, Canada, Natalie lives in Orem with her husband and their three children.

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