Seriously, why can’t we cure the common cold?

Runny nose, sore throat, sneezing, fever, cough, aches and pains. We know these dreaded descriptors better as the common cold. And it’s called the common cold for good reason: according to the Canadian Centre For Occupational Health and Safety, the average adult will be hit with up to five infections every year; the average child fares worse, catching up to eight. On top of all that misery, it’s the main reason adults miss work and kids miss school, resulting in millions of dollars in lost productivity. 

Even so, the CCOHS says colds are not as contagious as other infectious diseases. Its website states, “Close personal and prolonged contact is necessary for the cold viruses to spread. The viruses must get into the nose where they can infect the nasal membranes. The virus must attach to nasal cells after which the viruses can multiply. Inhaling contaminated droplets produced when someone else coughs or sneezes may be one way to catch a cold.” 

That’s a lot of effort to stage an invasion of our vulnerable membranes. Yet the effort pays off: you’d be hard-pressed to find a sniffle-free school or workplace in the spring and fall, prime cold-catching seasons. 

With so many of us being overtaken by this nasty virus, with such a huge cost to our health and the economy, and with so many studies and research over the years, why is there no cure, let alone an effective treatment? The simple answer is: we’re outnumbered. 

“There are currently too many viruses that cause the common cold and there is no single agent that could actually treat them all,” says Dr. Caroline Quach, co-director of the Vaccine Study Centre and Associate Infection Control Physician for Child and Adolescent Services at McGill University’s Health Centre. 

A cold is an infection of the upper respiratory tract, caused by more than 200 viruses, the most common being the rhinovirus, itself consisting of more than 100 variations. Attempts to develop a cure or vaccine has so far been a losing battle. Still, that doesn’t stop the search. 

 “There are currently no vaccines under development for most of the viruses,” says Dr. Quach, who is also an associate member of McGill’s Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics. “Researchers are working on vaccines to prevent respiratory syncytial viruses (RSV) and parainfluenza virus. Antivirals for these very specific viruses are under development and undergoing clinical trials, but there is nothing available for rhinoviruses.” 

Earlier this year, British researchers thought they’d found a way to “jam the genetic code” to stop the virus from replicating, but more work needs to be done. 

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“Drugs are being developed to stop the virus from attaching to the human cells and so the virus would not be able to replicate,” explains Dr. Quach of that particular research. 

Other studies are ongoing around the world to crack the cold, but there are still no quick fixes. Most of us are strong enough to wait it out while we ride out this miserable infection — with the average recovery rate at about a week — but others, such as the very young, very old, and the infirm are much more vulnerable. “To me, it is important to have treatment for those at high risk of complications, such as our immuno-compromised population,” says Dr. Quach. “If you are a child who just had a bone marrow transplant, RSV — which would be benign in a healthy child — may actually kill you. The same goes for enterovirus. It is often benign in a healthy child but may be fatal if a neonate acquires it early in life.” 

Some research does suggest that, as you age and as you encounter more viruses, the risk of symptomatic respiratory infections tends to decrease. However, the theory of exposing your child to viruses at a young age to help build up immunity doesn’t hold water. 

“The younger you are, the smaller your airways, and the more likely respiratory distress may occur. So waiting for children to be just a bit older is actually better than exposing them early,” says Dr. Quach. 

And the common cold could lead to more uncommon complications, such as bronchitis, sinusitis, ear infections, a bacterial superinfection, acute otitis media (an inflamed middle ear) or pneumonia, with a potential for abscess formation (empyema) in the lung or around it, warns Dr. Quach. While these bad bugs lay siege to so many of us every year, others seem to be almost immune, and the reasons are as wide and varied as the viruses themselves. Some theories suggest stress lowers immune capabilities, making it tougher to fight off the virus. Others claim a healthy lifestyle is the best barrier. And there may be some truth to them. Dr. Quach cites a randomized clinical trial from 2012 that split 154 adults into three groups: those who meditated, those who exercised, and those who were given a placebo. 

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 “The study reported 27 acute respiratory infections (ARI) episodes and 257 days of illness in the meditation group; 26 episodes and 241 ARI illness days for the exercise group; and 40 episodes and 453 ARI illness days for the control group,” says Dr. Quach. “Mean global severity across all randomized participants was 144 for meditation, 248 for exercise, and 358 for control. The meditation compared to the control group had fewer illness days and a lower global severity. The exercise group compared with the control group had fewer illness days but the global severity was similar. Adjusting for covariates, both total days of illness and global severity appeared to be lower for meditation, but not for exercise. This seems to show that less stress leads to fewer respiratory infections.” In other words, chill, people. 

Dr. Quach also pointed to another study that showed the effect of sleep on infection. “Healthy adults recorded the number of hours and quality of their sleep and were then given rhinovirus drops. Those sleeping less than seven hours had almost a three-fold increase in their risk of developing cold symptoms compared to those who slept eight hours or more per night….Lack of sleep and stress seem to be risk factors for developing cold symptoms.”

But not all of us will be rested and stress-free 100 per cent of the time. So when our guard is down and we inevitably succumb to the virus, what do we do? Over-the-counter medications won’t cure your cold, but they can help lessen the severity of the symptoms – just be mindful of allergies or interactions with other meds you’re taking. Natural options, such as echinacea, ginger, garlic, zinc, garlic, vitamin C or D, and a steaming bowl of chicken soup have not proven to be effective, but they can’t hurt. Forget about antibiotics; they don’t work for viruses and taking them can make it harder to fight bacterial infections down the road. Medical experts still recommend getting plenty of rest and staying hydrated to support your immune system. See a doctor if you or your child’s temperature climbs higher than 100 F, if your symptoms last longer than 10 days, or they become more severe. In the end, prevention is key. 

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Viruses are carried through the air on coughs and sneezes; they live on doorknobs and railings, keypads and counters, sheets and towels, infected people’s hands and lips. And the prescription remains the same: never touch these surfaces then your nose, mouth or eyes; wash your hands with soap and water frequently and for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer; steer clear of someone coughing or sneezing. If you’re the one infected, cough and sneeze into your elbow and toss that tissue right after use. And stay home!