Common facts about common colds

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014


RAIN and shine the weather has been lately.

Since time immemorial, I have always thought that the months of June, July and August are the peak of the so-called wet season in our country.

I know better because my birthday falls on July while my dad’s and brother’s on August and one phenomenon common to us all at least for the past 29 years of my existence is that it rains on our respective birthdays almost every year.

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But these past few years have been somehow different from the previous ones as recent years have turned out to be more extreme as climate change takes its toll.

But needlessly speaking, one truth prevails during this wet season: catching the “common colds” is more likely than ever.

What are these so-called common colds to begin with?

Technically speaking, common colds refer to an upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) caused by viruses.

More specifically, it refers to an afebrile, infectious, acute inflammation of the mucous membranes of the nasal cavity.

Some experts refer common colds to “viral rhinitis,” probably because of its viral etiology and rhinitis-like symptoms.

Anatomically, the respiratory system, which is the body system that is primarily responsible for delivering oxygen and removing carbon dioxide from the body is divided into two—upper and lower.

Upper respiratory tract consists of the nose, the sinuses, nasal passages, pharynx, tonsils, adenoids, larynx and trachea.

Therefore, URTI affects the abovementioned structures.

On the other hand, the lower respiratory tract includes the lungs and all the tiny structures inside it.

Medical literatures maintain that over eight groups of viruses cause the colds: rhinovirus, coronavirus, respiratory syncytial virus, parainfluenza virus, coxsackie virus, adenovirus, echovirus and the infamous SARS virus, which is actually a deadlier strain of coronavirus that claimed at least 800 lives in 2002.

Furthermore, among these groups of viruses are hundreds of strains, which make total immunity or even vaccination an ambitious pursuit.
As immunologists shed light on the promising matter of vaccines against the colds, other experts seem to refute this preventive course of action as vaccines cannot give total protection against all the strains of the eight groups of cold viruses.

In a similar matter, we naturally tend to develop immunities against the colds.

This may explain why for as long as we are healthy, less frequently we catch the colds.

Likewise, this provides the logical explanation why infants and young children catch the colds more than healthy adults do: they had not been exposed to a good number of strains of cold viruses and are yet to develop immunity.

As a matter of fact, Dr. Benjamin Spock, a renowned American pediatrician once wrote in his book that colds are as much as ten times more common among children compared to other childhood illnesses combined.

A cold virus may also make its way to the victim’s system when one is under physical or emotional stress as these situations tend to weaken immune system.

Other conditions that weaken the immune system such as chemotherapy, use of immunosuppressant drugs (for those receiving organ donations) and diseases like HIV/AIDS also increases one’s susceptibility to colds.

Unfortunately, as we age, our immune system tends to decline, as well, thereby placing us at the mercy of catching colds.

Colds initially manifest itself as nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing, nasal discharge and a scratchy sore throat with a cough that typically appear during the first day of infection.

It is then followed by a low-grade fever between 37.5 to 38.3 degrees Celsius. These signs and symptoms rapidly increase in severity in the next two days.

Some patients complain loss of taste or smell, pressure on their ears or sinuses and their voice becoming hoarse or nasal probably due to the inflammation caused by the virus.

Health experts claim that there is no specific treatment for colds.
Instead, the so-called “symptomatic management” is advocated: treatment is limited to alleviating the discomforts caused by symptoms.

For example, providing adequate fluid intake, encouraging bed rest, preventing chills, increasing intake of vitamin C, using expectorants as needed and warm salt gargles to soothe sore throat are all that are needed by the colds patient. Zinc lozenges also work well against sore throats.

Doctors may also want to prescribe antihistamines (Claritin or Benadryl, for example) to relieve sneezing and the watery nasal drip.

Decongestants may also be prescribed to relieve nasal congestions.

Nose drops are prescribed especially among children with thick mucus.
Usually, two types of nose drops are prescribed: one is a saline (saltwater) solution and another is a solution that can shrink the tissues inside the nose.

Lastly, doctors may also prescribe anti-inflammatories like paracetamol or ibuprofen for fever, aches and pain caused by the cold virus.

Notice that none of these interventions specifically targets the virus but rather the symptoms caused by it.
This is because cold viruses are believed to be self-limiting: meaning, they die off or transfer to another host after infecting you.
This concept is important in preventing the spread of cold virus.

Experts warn that most cold viruses are transmitted by direct contact with the secretion or with fomites-inanimate objects such as doorknobs, cellular phones or pens.

In fact, Dr. Neil Schachter wrote in his book that cold viruses can live for hours on inanimate objects waiting for you to “pick them up.”
Once you “caught” them and touch your face and nose, it enters your body through your mucosal tissue and initiate the infectious process.

To date, the best preventive technique is a meticulous hand washing.

Sources: Brunner & Suddarth’s Medical-Surgical Nursing; Dr. Spook’s Baby and Child Care; Microbiology: An Introduction; and The Doctor’s Guide to Colds & Flu.

[Email:polo.journalist@gmail.com]

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on August 19, 2014.

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