Ah-Choo! The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold

  • Share
  • Read Later

Perhaps the only thing more prevalent than colds is the volume of misinformation about them. Science writer Jennifer Ackerman, however, was determined to get to the bottom of what she calls the "petty plague." She's certainly dedicated: for her latest book—Ah-Choo! The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold—she volunteered to be infected with a cold virus. Having endured her maladies, Ackerman talks to TIME about whether we'll ever have a cure, why you probably don't want to "boost" your immune system, and the medicinal merits of good old chicken soup.

There are so many misconceptions about colds, including the one about the weather. You don't actually catch cold from the cold—
This has been a really stubborn myth. It has been put to rest by lots of solid studies. So, Mom, relax, it's ok to go outside with wet hair. Cold doesn't cause colds, viruses do. Colds are more common in the fall and winter because the cooler, wetter weather drives people inside, and viruses can more easily jump from one person to the next.

For the sake of research, you actually volunteered to become infected with a cold. Was the experience everything you thought it would be?
Well, and more. It was an odd experience to know that you're going to get sick. The cold itself was supposed to be mild, but in my family colds tend to migrate to the chest. It was a good ten days before I was back to normal again.

Is it generally accepted that some people are genetically more prone to colds?
It's an open question: is there such a thing as a "cold constitution"? Scientists are really interested in this idea that if you infect people with the virus, everybody will get infected, but only 75% of people will actually come down with the cold. If we could do a big genetic study, we might learn exactly why that is. But right now, it looks like there's a kind of irony here: the people who don't experience symptoms probably aren't making the inflammatory agents that other people are making. In a way, their immune response is weaker than people who come down with the symptoms.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about colds?
Probably that susceptibility to colds requires a kind of weakened immune system. Dietary supplements and cold preventive remedies say, "boost your immune system so that you can ward off cold," and it's interesting, because if you want to diminish your cold symptoms, boosting elements of your immune system may be the last thing you want to do.

Your book's appendix of purported remedies is disheartening. Everything appears useless. Were you surprised at how few things have been proven to work?
Yes. And I was disabused of the notion that the zinc lozenges that my family has always used actually had some effect. We really are a pretty gullible species, and in a lot of these cases, if any of these remedies work, it may be due to the force of our own beliefs, the placebo effect.

Will there ever be a cure for the common cold?
They're still working hard on drugs, and doing gene studies looking at what factors make people susceptible. I'm an optimist. At some point we may have something that actually nips a cold in the bud. It would be a great thing if somebody in the household gets a cold, everybody else takes a nasal spray and nobody else gets sick. I feel like we're not too far off from something like that. There are some promising drugs in the pipeline. But it's been a really tough nut to crack.

Talk to me about chicken soup.
Ah, chicken soup. A researcher at the University of Nebraska looked at chicken soup and its effect on inflammatory cells in a petri dish. He found that chicken soup actually does have some anti-inflammatory effect, and anything that has an anti-inflammatory effect might, in theory, reduce symptoms. However, this has never been proven in people, so it's still speculative. But chicken soup has been touted as a cold remedy for more than a thousand years. I feel like just the hot broth, the fact that it's comfort food, may actually make it kind of healing. The idea that somebody would make you chicken soup—

That goes along with what you mention about the power of empathy?
Empathy can actually cut short a cold by a full day. Imagine, that's better than any drug on the market, and there aren't any side effects.