January 23, 2006
It's official. It is cold and flu season.
"We call it the 'common
cold' for good reason. There are over one billion colds in the United
States each year. You ... will probably have more colds than any
other type of illness. Children average 3 to 8 colds per year. They
continue getting them throughout childhood. Parents often get them
from the kids. Its the most common reason that children miss
school and parents miss work. Children usually get colds from other
children. When a new strain is introduced into a school or day care,
it quickly travels through the class."
Whether child, teen, or
adult: if people are sharing an environment (like a classroom) with
others who are sick, germs travel quickly and easily from one person
to the next.
"Sneezing or coughing
produces more droplets and helps to spread the infection. Touching
infected surfaces, such as door handles or when shaking hands, and
then passing the virus from the hands to the mouth is another route
of infection for viruses. Infected people can spread the viruses
from two days before the symptoms of the illness start and up to
four days afterwards. Colds can occur all year round but are more
common in the winter months."
It is easy to see how the
germs are spread around a room when a sick person is coughing or
sneezing. Sometimes, it is not so easy: maybe a person carrying
a cold virus blows his/ her nose during class. Not being able to
leave the lesson to wash up, the germs stay on his/ her hands for
the rest of the class. The infected person then has contact with
desks, pencils, chairs, homework papers, door handles, and friends....
"Both colds and flu
can be passed through coughing, sneezing, and touching surfaces
such as doorknobs and telephones. So it's wise to make a habit of
washing your hands and to teach children to do the same. This helps
you prevent spreading respiratory infections and picking them up
from someone else."
With viruses everywhere,
one can either be paranoid or prepared. Certain factors can increase
the risk of catching a cold. At the same time, avoiding those factors
can reduce the risk.
"Air that's dry -
indoors or out - can lower your resistance to infection by these
viruses, though. So can allergies, lack of sleep, stress, not eating
properly, or hanging out with someone who is smoking. Being around
people with colds makes you more likely to catch one yourself, of
course. ... People who smoke are more likely to catch a cold than
people who don't - and their symptoms will probably be worse, last
longer, and are more likely to lead to bronchitis or even pneumonia."
Sometimes, these factors
"DOES GETTING WET
OR CHILLED CAUSE A COLD? No!! Many different types of viruses,
which are present in your nose and throat, cause colds. You
are more likely to get colds or other infections when you don't
get enough sleep, eat poorly, or spend time with people who have
colds. These conditions can reduce your resistance to infection,
making it more likely for you to get sick. Getting wet won't
necessarily give you a cold, since the cold virus must also be present."
Sometimes, looking a little
deeper is required.
"Scientists say they
have the first proof that there really is a link between getting
cold and catching one. Staff at the Common Cold Centre in Cardiff
took 180 volunteers and asked half of them to keep their bare feet
in icy water for 20 minutes. They found 29% developed a cold within
five days, compared with only 9% in the control group not exposed
to a chill. ... 'When colds are circulating in the community, many
people are mildly infected but show no symptoms,' Prof Eccles said.
'If they become chilled, this causes a pronounced constriction of
the blood vessels in the nose and shuts off the warm blood that
supplies the white cells that fight infection. The reduced defences
in the nose allow the virus to get stronger and common cold symptoms
develop. Although the chilled subject believes they have "caught
a cold" what has, in fact, happened is that the dormant infection
has taken hold.'"
And sometimes, no matter
how deep people look, they still may not find a definitive answer.
"Some people rely
on vitamin C supplements, zinc lozenges, and echinacea to prevent
and treat cold and flu symptoms. These remedies may make some people
feel better. However, their health effects are unknown, says Linda
Lambert, a program officer with the National Institute of Allergy
and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). No conclusive data has shown that
large doses of vitamin C prevent colds; they may reduce the severity
or duration of symptoms, but there is no definitive evidence. And
the jury is still out on zinc. 'There are about an equal number
of studies that say zinc helps as there are studies that say it
doesn't,' Lambert says. As for echinacea, 'studies have been done
of echinacea for preventing or treating colds and flu, but these
studies were not rigorous or definitive and the products tested
were diverse,' according to a written statement from Stephen Straus,
M.D., director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative
Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health. 'These studies
at best suggest that echinacea may be beneficial in the early treatment
of colds and flu, but does not help prevent them.' Always tell your
doctor about any supplements or herbal remedies you use, and don't
overdo it. For example, taking too much vitamin C can cause diarrhea."
Even with all the uncertainty
surrounding some methods of cold prevention, there are proven facts:
"The most important
thing you can do to prevent catching a cold or the flu is to wash
your hands often with soap and warm water, and avoid rubbing your
eyes or nose. The number of viruses peak when cold symptoms begin,
so you can pass viruses on before you develop cold symptoms. Use
tissues instead of handkerchiefs to blow your nose so they can be
The College of Family Physicians of Canada
Questions of the Week:
What can you do to reduce your risk of catching a cold? How can
what you know about avoiding colds reduce your chances of catching
other viral diseases? When it comes to staying healthy, what misconceptions
do you think are most common among your peers? What do you think
would be the best way to educate your peers and reduce (or eliminate)
Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.
I look forward to reading
what you have to say.
Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum