What is the common cold and how can it be treated?
A family of viruses, called rhinoviruses, are associated with half of all cold-like infections. They are so called due to being found in the nose and throat (‘rhino’ being the Greek word for ‘nose’). The main mode of infection is inhaling the virus (from droplets in the air).
The rhinovirus is extremely small but it’s extremely efficient at causing a cold. Studies showed that, when exposed to a new strain of rhinovirus, 95% of people became infected and 3 out of 4 became ill. Within ten minutes of infection in the nose, the virus would have spread to the throat.
The body fights back within the first three days of infection, with inflammation of the cells near the site of infection (giving a sore throat) and increased secretions of mucous in the lungs (cough and runny/blocked nose), leading to an increase in body temperature.
The virus replicates and spreads, causing a heightened immune response which leads to worsening symptoms.
Historical treatments for colds
Common colds have been present since the Ancient Egyptian times but modern science has not been able to produce a cure. This is due to the virus mutating rapidly, allowing it to become resistant to our drugs. The Egyptians offered remedies of chicken soup, thought to have originated from the Ancient Greeks. Did the Egyptians and Greeks have it right? It has been found that chicken soup actually inhibits the movement of immune cells to the infection site. The immune cells release chemicals that kill infected cells and virus particles. So the chicken soup temporarily reduces symptoms, however it does not aid the fight against infection, as the Ancient Egyptians might have thought.
Colonial Americans drank tea and mixtures of herbs but neither of these have proved to be effective.
Oranges and Vitamin C in particular have often been thought to boost resilience to infection and studies have shown a slight reduction in duration and severity of symptoms, but this reduction was not very significant.
Zinc lozenges are a potential treatment that work by preventing the virus from binding to our cells. Although this does not prevent symptoms, it will reduce the spread of the virus and the length of time for which a person is unwell. It is important not to take too many, in order to avoid zinc poisoning. Hence, it is very important to read the packaging of whichever brand you buy.
Pleconaril is a drug that is currently in development for fighting rhinovirus infections. It works by attacking the surface of the virus. Studies showed that Pleconaril lowered mucus secretions and significantly reduced symptoms for the patient, but the drug was taken off the market after clinical trial results showed adverse side effects such as nausea and diarrhoea.
So, there’s not much you can do when you get the flu, other than to try and rest and wash down some throat lozenges with orange juice and chicken soup! If the infection lasts more than a few weeks, be sure to seek further medical care.