DEAR DR. DONOHUE: My friend and I have an ongoing discussion about how we catch colds. I believe the only way is by being exposed to a germ. My friend agrees, but also says you can become chilled, and that results in a cold. Please settle this once and for all. — L.G.
ANSWER: The only way to catch a cold is to meet up with a cold virus. But let’s kick this around a little while it lies there quivering.
Rhinoviruses are responsible for many colds. This virus is passed from one person to another most often via the hands and fingers. An infected person invariably will have virus on his or her hands and fingers. If that person touches another person’s hands or fingers, the virus is transferred. All the second person has to do is touch his or her nose or eyes and the virus has found a new home. (The drainage channel for tears siphons viruses into the nose.) It’s also possible to spread a cold through sneezing or coughing, but that’s a secondary route.
Many colds are preceded by a body chill. That’s part of the infection symptoms, and that might be what your friend refers to.
Once a virus lands in a person’s nose, the time until the development of cold symptoms is short — eight to 12 hours. Runny nose, nasal stuffiness, scratchy throat, cough and sneezing are typical symptoms. They peak in 48 hours and are gone in about one week. A person is most contagious during the first three days of symptoms, when nasal discharge is at high volume and when it contains the most viruses.
If by “chilling” your friend means being in a cold blast of air or getting your feet wet in frigid weather and shivering as a result, she has a slight point. That kind of chilling constricts the nose’s blood vessels and decreases mucus production. It might, therefore, permit cold viruses to mount a more effective attack and can contribute to the ease of catching a cold. All the same, without the virus there is no cold.
Dr. Donohue regrets that he is unable to answer individual letters, but he will incorporate them in his column whenever possible. Readers may write him or request an order form of available health newsletters at P.O. Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475.
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