All hail the rhinovirus

Stop it with the vitamin C, and other things my cold taught me

4 minute read
I made this. Will it cure me? (Photo by Alaina Johns.)
I made this. Will it cure me? (Photo by Alaina Johns.)

When the days become short and chilly and sidewalks mix sodden single gloves with moldy leftover leaves, it signals a few natural events, primary among them: rhinovirus season. If you could balance on the head of a pin while donning a sports bra and belting Handel’s Messiah, you would not be half as nimble as the common cold.

Not all colds are caused by a rhinovirus, but most of them are. The Centers for Disease Control says most US adults will get two or three colds per year. I’m right on track.

One billion

This cold is the worst I’ve had in a while, but I’m bitterly grateful it’s not the flu; no fever, no hot aching in my joints. Just a burning-raw throat and the sensation that the inside of my head is bigger than my skull. Every few minutes, the insides of my nostrils feel like the melting, tumbling edge of one of those glaciers in a documentary about global warming. Sneezes hit with the speed and power of passing freight trains.

I’m glad I got my flu shot. Influenzas are viruses, too. And while we can fight cancer with gene therapy, halt fatal allergic reactions, and perform surgery on fetuses, we cannot develop a vaccine against the common cold—an illness WebMD claims occurs up to one billion times in the US every year.

Rhinoviruses mutate so fast we can’t keep up. We can catch colds again and again and again because the viruses keep morphing into something our immune system doesn’t recognize, and bam—you go to bed with a scratchy throat and wake up with a head so heavy it feels welded to your pillow.

You did it to yourself

It’s not the virus itself that makes you feel bad. Not even when it hijacks one of your own cells to make teeming copies of its own nefarious RNA before the host cell explodes and begins the cycle again thousand-fold. It’s your body’s response to the virus that makes you feel like death.

Your upper respiratory cells scream for backup, your immune system rushes to the scene like seagulls to a funnel cake. That’s what causes the inflammation you feel: the thick crinkling in your ears, pain when you swallow as lymph nodes swell like wartime army bases, the faucet in your nose.

Bogus advice

When you feel that cold coming on, forget about vitamin C. There’s no solid evidence it prevents colds in ordinary populations. There may be evidence it can slightly reduce the duration of a cold, but that’s only if you take 200mg every day, not just when you’re feeling sick. (Vitamin C is water-soluble anyway. If your body gets an extra dose, it just washes out—something you will not hear from the makers of Emergen-C.)

And contrary to a thousand commercials, you can’t make the cold shorter by taking Nyquil. Yes, you can temporarily mask the symptoms. But the infection has to run its course—that usually takes a week to 10 days.

Stop with the antibiotics too. They won’t help a cold or the flu, which aren’t caused by bacteria. However, having a viral infection can weaken your immune system against bacterial invaders, so you might wind up with a secondary illness that does need antibiotics.

Partly because chicken soup is delicious, I don’t want to hear that evidence for its efficacy in fighting colds is inconclusive at best. We do know hot liquids can make you feel better; soup is easy to eat if your appetite is bad or your throat’s really sore, and chicken, veggies, and broth are just plain nutritious.

Thanks, Amazon

Just try not to catch the cold (good luck not being one of those one billion US infections every year). Wash and dry your hands so much that you can’t think about anything but finding lotion. Don’t touch your mouth, nose, or eyes with your hands. Cold viruses can linger alive on surfaces like counters or doors for up a few days. All they need is a ride to your stupid face.

Having a cold is hard—especially when you realize that Amazon Fresh delivery is the closest thing you have to a parent or partner. Welcome to being a single adult, otherwise known as “you’re not getting soup or anything else unless you stand up and make it.”

My only comfort

Maybe there’s some philosophical value in our collective vulnerability to colds. They’re debilitating without drama. They’re miserable without mystery. They’re as isolating as they are common, since sensible people avoid you until you’re feeling better.

There’s no solidarity in catching a cold. But there is a humanity in it: the imperative of rest, acquiescence to your body’s needs. The inescapable fact is that a tiny, invisible thing lays us low by the millions every year, from kindergartners to CEOs. I take peerless comfort in the knowledge that everyone walking around happily without me right now is likely going to get theirs, and soon.

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