Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

If they can send a man to the moon . . .

I have a bit of a cold, no big deal. According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (and I don't know where they get this from) there are over 1 billion cases of the common cold in the U.S. each year, which means the average person gets about 3. That is a bit more than a nuisance, since presumably it means a lot of lost productivity and possibly some more serious consequences if people who are groggy from too much Nyquil try to drive a car or operate an excavator.

I came to work today anyway, although I might not generate quite as much dazzling brilliance or baffling bullshit as I do no a typical Tuesday. But naturally, I got to thinking about the FAQs concerning this most commonplace of human afflictions.

Question #1: They do a better job of curing cancer than they do of curing the common cold. Why are scientists so stupid?

Answer: Actually, it doesn't really follow that just because a condition is relatively mild, it ought to be easier to cure. I am also a victim of male pattern baldness, and I have no hope about that. But there are additional reasons. There are more than 200 viruses known to cause symptoms we call a cold; half of all colds are caused by viruses we don't even know about! Some people will say that technically, a cold is disease caused by a class of virus called a Rhinoviruses. But really, since nobody bothers to try to find out what virus you actually have, a cold is whatever seems like a cold. It would probably be pretty easy to come up with a vaccine against almost any given one of these viruses, but why bother? You'd still catch the other 199, plus any of the unknown multitude.

Since viruses are not actually alive, but rather hijack the cellular machinery to make copies of themselves, antiviral drugs generally have to interfere with biological processes that are there for good reasons, ergo they have side effects. It's worth taking antiviral drugs for HIV, for example, but it would not be worth taking such toxic drugs for a mild, self-limiting illness.

Finally, since colds are, as in my case, no big deal, it just isn't worth the huge investment in biomedical research we put into more serious diseases.

Question #2: What should I do about it?

Answer: Not much. All of the over the counter medications marketed for cold symptoms really don't work very well. Suppressing your cough is not actually a good idea -- you cough for a reason, to clear out the gunk. Cold symptoms are mostly the body's response to the infection -- the fever and mucus secretions are part of how your body fights the infection. Probably best to leave well enough alone, for the most part.

Hot liquids will relieve the symptoms. Ginger tea is good. Get fresh ginger, cut it up, and boil the living shit out of it. Drink it hot, with lemon and honey if you like.

People have thought that various nostrums -- zinc, echinacea, vitamin C -- work against colds but more careful investigation has so far found, so sorry, they do not. So hold onto your wallet.

Whatever you do, don't take antibiotics. Which brings us to . . .

Question #3: What is the worst harm done by the common cold?

Answer: I would say, inappropriate treatment, particularly prescribing of antibiotics for cold symptoms, or use of over the counter antibiotics in countries where they are available. That helps to create antiobiotic resistant bacteria (which do not cause colds), which constitute a grave danger to humanity. (I'm not exaggerating.)

Then there is all the money wasted on marginally effective remedies. Oh yeah - Do not, repeat DO NOT give over the counter cold remedies to young children. Sayeth NIH: "However, do not give aspirin to children. And do not give cough medicine to children under four."

Question #4: So, how can we prevent colds?

Answer: While hand washing was greatly overhyped last winter for influenza control (flu is mostly transmitted by aerosols and "fomites," inert surfaces on which virus resides), it really works to prevent transmission of cold viruses. If you have a cold, do others a favor and wash your hands frequently. Cover your coughs and sneezes, but not with your hand, obviously, if you can help it. Stay home if you're really symptomatic and spewing viruses everywhere.

Other than that, live with it. It's the human condition.

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