Surviving Cold Season: How Not to Get Sick
While bundling up before going outdoors can help you stay warm, it won’t keep you from catching a cold. In a recent study, British researchers made one group of people wear wet socks while sitting in a drafty gym in their underwear, while another bunch watched TV fully clothed in a toasty room. Then both groups had cold viruses squirted up their noses. The result: The warm group caught just as many colds as those who had been chilled.
So how do you really catch a cold? Colds are caused by any one of 200 viruses. When someone has a cold, they spew virus particles into the air whenever they cough, sneeze or simply exhale. The most common way to catch a cold is by inhaling the virus or picking it up on your fingers. “We all touch our noses subconsciously several times an hour,” says Dr. Jack Gwaltney, a cold expert at the University of Virginia. “When you have a cold, nose-touching contaminates your fingers with virus particles. If you touch other people’s hands or hard surfaces (counters, doorknobs, telephones, etc.), you deposit virus, and other people literally pick it up with their fingers. Then they touch their noses [or rub their eyes] and get infected.”
How to Avoid a Cold
The best way to prevent colds is to minimize your exposure to cold viruses:
It will disperse cold viruses. You may not want to open the windows in winter, but keep air moving with fans.
Coughs and sneezes expel millions of virus particles into the air. If you’re around someone who has a cold, encourage them to cover their mouths and noses when they cough or sneeze, preferably with their elbow rather than their hands.
Use soap and water
Multiple studies show that “one of the best defenses against colds is frequent hand washing,” says Gwaltney. “It removes viruses from fingers.”
Keep fingers away from nose and eyes
That way you won’t infect yourself if you’ve picked up cold viruses on your fingers.
When Gwaltney contaminated a countertop with cold virus, then sprayed it with Lysol disinfectant spray, the disinfectant greatly reduced the amount of cold virus present.
It boosts immune function. In one study, women who took a 45-minute walk five days a week suffered only half as many days with cold symptoms as sedentary women.
When Carnegie-Mellon psychologist Sheldon Cohen squirted cold viruses into the noses of 400 volunteers, those who were most stressed were twice as likely to catch a cold. Stress increases susceptibility, Cohen explains, “because it impairs the immune system’s ability to fight off colds.”
Because colds spread from person to person, you’d think that loners would remain cold-free. But in a study of 276 volunteers, Cohen discovered that as social connections increase, risk of colds decreases. Social ties boost the immune system, Cohen notes.
Finally, if you’re wondering how close you can get to your sniffling child or spouse -- or vice versa -- University of Wisconsin researchers gathered 16 couples, infected one member of each couple with a cold virus, then had them plant an extended kiss on their partner’s mouth. Only one partner (6 percent) caught the cold. It seems the virus generally stays in the nose and throat while the mouth remains remarkably virus-free. So feel free to kiss cold sufferers. Just don’t rub noses.
Michael Castleman has been called 'one of the nation's leading health writers' (Library Journal). He is the author of 11 consumer health books and more than 1,500 health articles for magazines and the Web.
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