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'Ah-Choo!' Takes On Mysteries Of The Common Cold

You know the symptoms: the sniffles, the scratchy sore throat ... it's the dreaded feeling of an oncoming cold. Colds send patients to the doctor's office more than 100 million times a year -- and yet scientists still haven't been able to figure them out.

Science writer Jennifer Ackerman's new book, Ah-Choo! The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, examines the myths and mysteries behind the common ailment that affects almost everyone. (No. You can't get a cold by standing out in the cold.) Ackerman also explains why colds follow that familiar throat-to-nose-to-chest path of misery -- and details what tests show about various cold remedies. (Prepare to be disappointed.)

In a conversation with Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies, Ackerman explains that the best ways to avoid colds are seemingly simple -- continually wash your hands and avoid touching your face. But, she says, there's no need to go overboard with the hand-washing.

"If you shake hands with someone who's obviously ill, you do want to wash your hands -- but you don't really have to be doing this 50 times a day," Ackerman says. "The other thing [to avoid colds] is [to try] not touching your face. This is actually easier said than done. Just try not touching your face for a day -- most of us touch our faces one to three times every five minutes -- so that's 200 to 600 times a day. These are really hard habits to beat."

Jennifer Ackerman is the author of Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream: A Day in the Life of Your Body and Chance in the House of Fate: A Natural History of Heredity. She has written for National Geographic, The New York Times and Scientific American.

Interview Highlights

How the cold virus spreads

"Some cold viruses are carried in airborne droplets from coughs and sneezes, but the most common cause of the common cold is most commonly spread with objects or hands contaminated by the nasal secretions by someone who is infected. So it is transmitted when you touch your hand to a contaminated object like a bus rail or a politican's hand and then you touch your own hand to your nose or eyes -- this is the way the virus travels most frequently."

On elevators, airplanes, Xerox machines, and other places where people touch things

"We all touch elevator buttons. There are cold hot spots that are commonly touched by people -- in the office, it's the Xerox machine or the refrigerator handle in the kitchen -- yes, these are places where you just don't know who's been there before you. ... What people leave behind in hotels apart from their spare change and bobby pins was really disheartening. Scientists discovered that cold viruses are often left on TV remotes, pencils, door handles -- places that are frequently not really cleaned by the cleaning crew."

On why colds are more common in fall and winter

"The colder, wetter weather drives us indoors where the viruses leap much more readily from nose to nose."

On factors that increase the risk of getting a cold

"Fatigue -- just being worn down -- doesn't necessarily increase your susceptibility. Two things, however, do. Sleep deprivation -- if you get less than seven hours of sleep -- that increases your risk of getting a cold. ... Another factor is chronic stress. When we are under continuous stress, we are more susceptible to getting a cold."

On the cold remedy Airborne

"Airborne is the No. 1 natural cold remedy. It was billed as this homey product invented by a schoolteacher. It was a fizzy concoction of vitamins, minerals and herbs -- and the ads claimed all you had to do was take it before you entered a germy environment [and] you'd instantly be protected. And if you were already down with a cold, the ads said it was clinically proven to nip colds in the bud. Baloney on both counts. It does no such things. The watchdog groups who look at these products and test them call it an 'overpriced vitamin pill that's been really cleverly (but deceptively) marketed.' If there's any effect to Airborne, it's due to really high doses of Vitamin C, which has some effect of drying secretions and shortening colds slightly. But it's far, far cheaper to just buy the vitamin than to buy this overpriced, multivitamin product."

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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