On Saturdays during the winter when I was five or six years old I was taken to the doctor for cold shots. Sixty years later, a cure for the common cold remains as elusive as ever and I am wondering what was in those shots. These days I don’t get many colds, which is typical for the over-fifty crowd. The rhinoviruses that cause colds, though many, are limited in number. After fifty years of two or more colds per year my body has developed immunity to lots of them.
For the most part, I have acquired my cold resistance the hard way, one cold at a time, but I’ve also learned some helpful strategies. When we had colds as children, my brothers and I were sent to school, business as usual, unless we had a fever. These days, when I first get a sore throat, I immediately try to slow down in order to let my immune system do its work. I prepare meals and do some regular activities, including a little exercise, but no strenuous workouts. The most important parts of my strategy are to take zinc lozenges (Cold-Eeze) and to sleep extra hours, probably a long nap in the afternoon in addition to 7-8 hours at night. If I can do this, very often the threatened cold goes away without any further symptoms.
When I was younger, colds used to last for a miserable week or ten days of sore throat, sneezing, and coughing, often succeeded by lingering chest congestion. Sometimes all that would be followed by secondary infections that could drag on for weeks. These days, once in a great while, I get a cold that really knocks me sideways – but it never lasts more than a couple of days. This happened to me last week. On Wednesday I got a sore throat and started taking zinc lozenges and resting. By Thursday I was sneezing but I felt OK. Friday I was totally wiped out – my sinuses hurt, my teeth all ached in unison, my throat was raw – and I spent most of the day sleeping. When I woke up Saturday morning, it had pretty much all gone by, though I felt a little as if I had been in a fight, and today (Sunday) it is hard to believe that it even happened.
Why do I get shorter, nastier colds? Apparently, it’s because my immune system now is stronger than it was when I was younger. As Jennifer Ackerman points out, cold symptoms are caused not by the virus but by the action of the immune system in fighting it off. The more powerful the response, the worse you feel. The trade-off, I believe, is that the cold gets knocked out of your system much faster so that you spend more days feeling good and have a reduced risk of secondary infections.
Medical science has learned a lot about colds in recent years. It seems that genetic variations may cause some people to get more colds than others. Also, the more years your parents owned their own home before you were 18, the less likely you are to get a lot of colds during your lifetime. The key here is stress, which can reduce the ability of the immune system to regulate inflammation, leaving the body more vulnerable to disease. Important research in this area has been done by Sheldon Cohen at Carnegie Mellon University. Coldwise, my destiny may have been forged in early childhood. My parents never owned their own home – we lived in a place provided by the church where my father was rector – and there was always plenty of stress. As for the cure for the common cold, we’re still waiting.