Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Common Cold: A Mortal Battle Between the Forces of Good and Evil

"Oh my Gott, I gudd a wickitt code."

That's what I've been saying for the last week while coughing, sneezing, blowing, wiping, dripping, not sleeping, and trying to impress upon people how deeply my feelings have been hurt by my stupid "code."

After all, I'm a heroic figure. You mean to say that a virus invisible to the eye, that's nothing but a strand of DNA or RNA covered by a protein shell, that's not even alive, can bring ME down? Can this be right?

And why do people think that my cold is no big deal when I -- ME -- feel like I'm going to die? How come nobody wants to talk about my cold? Not the guys at tennis. Not the family. Not even my wife Barbara.

"Well," Barbara said with a rare hard edge," when I had a cold, how long did it take for you to even notice?"

"High notished."

"It took you a week."

"Yeah, but you're diffint," I said, coughing into a kleenix, "You just keep goan. You don't suffer the way" -- huge sneeze! -- "high do."

"Oh, poor baby. We'll get you some cough medicine."

"Tank you," I said, blowing my nose. "You tink" -- cough-cough, sniffle-sniffle -- "it will help?"

"I hope so, for everybody's sake."

About the only person who seemed interested in talking to me about my cold was the clerk at the Honey Farms convenient store. It was 5:30 A.M. and, unable to sleep with my stuffed nose, I had been up most of the night. There was no one else in the store.

"You sound awful," he said. He went on to make a suggestion, something called Sleep-Right strips. "You tape them on your nose and they help you sleep," he said. "They even have medicine. They're on TV, so you know they're legit."

It felt so good to find someone interested in my cold.
To keep my mind off my misery, I decided to find out what the hell was going on with this cold. How did I get it? Why am I so miserable? How could I feel so bad and not have my life be at risk? What's the best way to deal with it?

I read what authoritative sources had to say about the common cold. Among them were: The Mayo Clinic, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and The American Lung Association.
What they all said was that there is no cure for the common cold, no prospect for one, and that we are all pretty much on our own. All the cold medicines out there are merely palliatives.

These sources say the same for all those supplements that are promoted as curing and preventing colds. There are many. Some of them are: echinacea, eucalyptus, garlic, honey, lemon, menthol, zinc, and vitamin C.

As many as one-third of all Americans use such supplements and believe fervently in them. To date, the sources above say, there is no scientific evidence demonstrating that these supplements -- and many others -- cure or prevent the common cold, though some do bring temporary relief.

I also read extracts from The Common Cold Center, which claims to be the world's only organization dedicated to researching and testing treatments for the common cold. The Center is based at the university of Cardiff in Wales.
The Center's director since it began in 1988 is Ron Eccles, 57, shown here. He is a man who knows his noses, having done his doctoral theses on rhineology ("rhine" being the Latin word for nose). Three decades later, he is still fascinated by the nose and the upper airways. To him, the common cold is no simple matter.

"The thing about the common cold is it's not a single disease," Mr. Eccles said in a New York Times interview. "It's a syndrome of symptoms, caused by probably 200 different types of viruses. So there is not going to be a cure, as there would be for smallpox, or perhaps even AIDS. Mankind has got rid of all its big predators, and we think that we're at the top of the food cycle, but in fact the viruses are still at the top, and there is very little we can do about them."

Displayed prominently in the Center's foyer is a large model of a virus. With its 20-sided shape, it looks innocent -- more like a geometry teacher's prop than the cause of the world's most common disease. The average American adult gets 2-4 colds a year. Though the typical cold runs its course in from 7-14 days without causing serious harm, colds can and do kill.

What the model at the Common Cold Center does not depict is the globule of mucus that the virus would almost certainly be swimming in. Understandably, as important as mucus is in the transmission of the cold virus, its depiction in a public lobby might leave some people, shall we say, turned off.

But mucus is the vehicle the cold virus uses to get from person to person or, more exactly, from nose to nose. "The viruses don't float around as little spaceships, " Mr. Eccles said. "The only way you're going to catch a cold is for mucus from someone else's nose to get into your nose."

Nothing does this better than a sneeze, which releases into the air a shotgun spray of virus-laden mucus droplets. All anybody nearby or passing by has to do to inhale the virus is to breathe. And breathing in one invisible droplet among the countless droplets is all it takes to get infected.

Failing that, the viruses can survive for several hours outside the body, say, on a doorknob, where they lie in wait. When a hand touches the doorknob, the virus hitches a ride. When the unwary person, now a carrier, touches his or her nose, the virus is home free. If the person rubs his or her eye, the virus works its way down the tear duct and into the nose.

Whichever route the virus takes, nose or eye, the invader executes a docking maneuver and latches onto nasal cells -- and the first stage of infection is complete.

Who are the most dangerous sources of cold infection? Children. "They get 7 to 10 colds a year and they spread their mucus around freely," Mr. Eccles said.

So that's how I got the cold! In the weeks before my cold symptoms started, Barbara and I had entertained a steady stream of grandkids. They arrived regularly with coughs, dripping noses, ear infections -- you name it. One of the games I play with them is "monster." I'm the monster and I'm hungry and what I like to eat most of all are juicy fingers.

I chase them around and when I catch a kid, I make a big show of gnawing on his fingers. A sick kid's fingers in my mouth! Given where the typical sick kid's fingers have likely been, how could I have not picked up a cold virus? The monster no longer likes to eat juicy fingers.

What kind of thing is this cold virus? What has it been trying to do inside my body for the past week and why? Shouldn't a hero like me be able to get rid of it with the flick of a finger? Aren't I smarter than a speck of protein without a brain or any chacteristic remotely resembling life? What drives it?

As far as I can see, all viruses are pure evil, unless you want to count viruses used to make yogurt. Think HIV. Think Ebola. Think West Nile. They kill. They are neither alive nor dead, but a grotesque malignancy that play no beneficial role in the natural world, unless you want to count keeping plant and animal immune systems on their toes.

Unlike bacteria, 99% of which are beneficial to plant and animal life (eg. bacteria in our gut help digestion, repress noxious organisms, and produce some vitamins), viruses have no redeeming quality. As decomposers, bacteria are essential in cleaning up the global ecosystem; as alien invaders, viruses are a plague on the natural world. Bacteria can be used to make vaccines; viruses cannot.

In my humble opinion, all living creatures would be better off without viruses. They do harm. Period. They are parasites who can only exist in a living host which they use to multiply their kind. And that's what drives them, reproduction. Reproduction to what purpose? Reproduction -- which is to say no purpose at all.

Make no mistake, once you have a cold virus, you either fight or you die. After the cold virus latches onto the nasal cell, it injects its own strand of genetic material into the host cell. The viral DNA or RNA then, in effect, hijacks control of all the cell's functions, including reproduction.

The cell, which is a thousand times larger than the virus, is commanded to use all of its resources and energy reproducing copies of the virus. Soon the cell is spent and weakened and bursts like an inflated balloon. A once-healthy cell dies and hordes of new cold viruses swarm out to invade healthy cells and make still more copies of themselves.

If the viruses meet no resistance, they will rampage through the body destroying healthy cells, creating ever more viruses, and eventually causing organ failure and death.

What about antibiotics? Can't they kill viruses the way they do bacteria? The answer is no. Viruses are not alive as bacteria are and you cannot "kill" something that is not alive.

Just for the hell of it, at Barbara's suggestion, I tried an over-the-counter cough medicine, Robitussin Night Time Cough and Cold. It is an antihistamine cough suppressant and nasal decongestant. A tiny bottle of 4 fluid ounces, only enough for 24 hours, costs $5.99. I winced at the price.

Bottom line, the medicine helped me breathe better but the relief didn't last long, maybe a couple of hours. Oh, I get it. The bottle is small and the relief temporary for a reason: so you buy a bottle every day. No thanks.

But what's that I hear? Bugles! Help is on the way!

It's the Immune System Cavalry! An army of activated white cells is mounting a counterattack against the invaders. Some "killer" white cells attack the much smaller cold viruses. Others produce antibodies and natural disinfectants.

It is the actions of the body's immune system that produce cold symptoms (coughing, sneezing, congestion, etc), not those of the cold virus. The sneeze expels the cold virus from the nose. The cough expels it from the lungs.

It is a battle royal. At stake: my life. On one side, representing Satan and the dark forces of evil, the invading cold virus; on the other side, representing humanity and all that is good, the Immune System Cavalry. The brain is not involved. Every bodily response to the cold virus invasion is automatic.

In this case, it is not a fair fight. In the course of my long life, my troops have fought this battle many times and have won every time. They know the enemy. They know what has to be done. Well, truthfully, they don't "know" anything; they are automatons as driven to defend as the cold viruses are driven to attack.

But with each cold virus attack, the immune system as a whole adapts to the different viruses and builds up a resistance. That's why older people get fewer colds. People over 60 average only one cold a year, half as many as young adults.

In this attack on me, the invader is probably rhinovirous, which is responsible for 30% to 50% of all colds and its strengths and weaknesses are well "known" to my immune system. As the Common Cold Center says on its website, the common cold can only be cured by our own immune system producing specific antibodies against the virus."

By the end of the 7th day since the onset of symptoms, it is all over. The noble field of battle, the inside of my precious nose, is littered with dead and dying rhinoviruses and also with nasal cells that had been killed in the invasion. White-celled soldiers go about cleaning up the mess and disinfecting.

I can breathe through my nose for the first time in a week. The cough, still there, is intermittent. The throat is still a little raw, but nothing like before. I sleep through the night. My week of cold misery is over. Life is good again.

Back at tennis the morning after my first full night's sleep in a week, I am bursting to tell everybody the story of my cold. I want to describe my surprise at the onset of symptoms, how I endured, how I -- with minor help from my immune system -- prevailed in the end.

No one is interested in my cold; they want to play tennis. Actually, that's not exactly accurate. Marty Griff faked interest in my cold and then started talking about HIS cold. Oh, well.

When the cold breaks, my wife Barbara is visiting our daughter in Connecticut. I call to give her the good news.

"Great," she said, coughing. "Thanks for giving me your cold."

So what can one take away from this story of my cold? When it comes to preventing and curing the common cold, our strongest ally and best hope is our immune system.

It thinks only of you. It is loyal to you and to no other creature or thing. Its soldiers stand ready to fight and die for you. It serves you even before God. You are its God.

While supplements and cough medicines can give us temporary relief from cold symptoms, most also serve other masters and many have side effects; some of them are unknown. No medicine or supplement or combination thereof has been scientifically shown to be able to prevent or cure the common cold or even make its run shorter.

As of now, a typical cold must run its course and will do so. Our immune system needs a certain amount of time to kill all those evil rhinoviruses. I say this as one whose nose is at this moment a veritable rhinovirous graveyard.

The best thing that we can do, I think, is to do everything we can to support our immune system in its noble, selfless, brilliant, role as our champion. We can do this by living our lives in such a way as to make it possible for our immune system to be all it can be.

Regular exercise and a healthy diet have been shown in many studies to boost the immune system significantly. Studies have also shown that ongoing excess stress also affects the immune system, reducing its reaction time and effectiveness; better stress management has an opposite, positive effect.

Damn! I just read that getting over a cold, as I am now, does not mean that you can't get another one right away. So tennis guys and gals, I hope you will understand that I would rather not shake hands for a while. Nothing personal.

It's just the world we live in.

Instead of shaking hands after the match, I suggest safe, rational, commonsense alternatives. From now on, we guys should bump chests like testesterone-overloaded rams and, like perfect gentlemen, kiss women players on the cheek.

What? Run that by you again? Sure, by not shaking hands, we deprive the evil rhinovirus of a major pathway to infection. We replace the known dangerous behavior with known safe behaviors: bumping chests and kissing, neither of which transfers rhinoviruses.

As a bonus, guys get to demonstrate that they are real macho men but also gentlemen with a soft, gentle side. They get a chance to be courtly toward the so-called weaker sex (not true of the fine women players I meet on court).

Women players also win. They get a chance to show that they are more than competitive athletes who blast overheads into your face; they are also feminine, with all the qualities that it implies. Instead of shaking hands after a hard-fought match, they could feel free to hug and kiss each other just as women do off court.

Just a suggestion to avoid colds.

So long and keep moving.

P.S. Marty, thanks for letting me use the racket. But I know that you coughed on the handle first. You didn't think I noticed, but I did. While we played, I made sure I didn't touch my eye or nose. Afterwards, I immediately scrubbed my hands. Nice try, though.
 NOTE: Something Tells Her, my new e-book, is now available on Amazon.  

Jane is abandoned as a baby and raised in multiple horrific foster homes. After her latest abuse, a sexual advance from her latest foster parent, she screams "NO!" and runs out the door Twelve years old, on the street, alone, no family, nobody, no money, how can she possibly survive? She can't -- except that Jane  is no ordinary foster kid. She doesn't understand "can't." Read excerpts.

Amazon E-Books by George Pollock

 "State Kid: Hero of Literacy" is fiction based on his  real-life experiences  growing up in foster homes; "Last Laughs," is the true story of how five foster kids (he and four younger siblings) found their way in life and each other. "Killers: Surprises in a Maximum Security Prison," is the story of his being locked up for 23 hours with killers in a maximum security prison;  "I, Cadaver" is about his postmortem adventures and mischief in the anatomy lab at UMass Medical School. “A Beautiful Story” demonstrates the art and process of creative writing as a 16-year-old boy goes all out to write a story that literally saves his life;  "A Long, Happy, Healthy Life,"  is about how to live the title every day; and "Unlove Story," Writing anonymously as "Elvis," a husband, dumped after 38 years of marriage, lets it all out on love, marriage, life, everything. A guy doing this? It's unheard of.
   For the Nook:

A Beautiful Story
A Long, Happy, Healthy Life
I, Cadaver
State Kid
Unlove Story



At April 17, 2009 10:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A few years down the road here.

Suffering a "bad cold" in Minnesota, USA.

Ran across this write up.

VERY informative and USEFUL!

I thank the author profusely for her work.

Or should I say, "I tank the awtore
for her werk", which would be more like what I sound like right now.

At January 27, 2012 3:41 PM, Anonymous Charlene said...

You are hilarious! Loved this post! I currently have a cold and Googled about it to see if others would share their stories so I could relate...

At December 12, 2012 6:37 PM, Blogger chaya writer said...

I feel embarrassed having a bad cold. I feel like a slacker. I'm so glad someone else felt like they were dying - Not happy about your pain. A cold doesn't get the respect that a flu does. I especially hate paying a Co-pay just to hear that I have a cold and there's nothing to be done for it.

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