Admit it. You’ve been held hostage. It can happen every year when chills remind you that it isn’t summer anymore, and especially when you have an upcoming gig in a drag show or a speaking engagement like the quintessentially cold and drippy International Transgender Day of Remembrance. Ignore it and you can be sure you’ll face a slog of a week or 10 days. You might face an even longer siege if the infection spreads into your lungs where it could expand into pneumonia in people with weakened immune systems.1Rhinovirus, the bane of the babes onstage and known to be the most common culprit of the “common cold,” is ready for another season to laugh its way into your nasal passages like an attack of obnoxious little critters to force you out of makeup. But if you act quickly enough and take proper precautions, you could beat an impending infection in a matter of hours.
We all know the symptoms of the common cold: sore throat (especially in the early stages of infection), runny nose, coughing, sneezing, headaches, and body aches.2 No “cure” exists for a rhinovirus infection. Antibiotics, useful for coated bacteria, 3 only help combat a secondary infection of bacteria and have lost much of their effectiveness because of decades of improper use.4 The virus has resulted in days lost from work and school, impacting the national economy through loss of labor and increased sales in the robust industry of cold remedies. But in most cold cases, those expensive cold remedies might not even be needed if approached properly.
ANATOMY OF A COMMON INFECTION
While it’s possible to become infected through close contact with another person, especially if an infected person sneezes in your face, most cases of infection happen without our thinking about it at all. Handling a doorknob or a writing instrument previously handled by an infected individual can transfer the virus, and if the hand is brought to the face infection can readily result. Common introduction of the virus is through the eyes when we unconsciously rub them during the course of the day.5
The eyes have a constant flow of tears to protect them from the environment. Keeping that flow of tears enables the cornea, and consequently, vision to remain clear. Those tears originate in tear glands around the eyes. But they not only empty into the eyes via tear ducts. These ducts also direct tears into the nasal cavity. When we cry those tears loosen other material in the nasal cavity, resulting in a flood that we blow out into our handkerchiefs.6
Those tear ducts not only provide a pathway for tears into the nasal cavity but also for pathogens including rhinovirus. The nasal passages provide its best nesting ground. Infection results in an initial response of the body producing its own histamines, causing stuffiness and post-nasal drip.
By “post-nasal drip” we refer to the drip of mucous from the nasal cavity to where these passages join with the pharynx, or the back of the throat. This drip of mucous can trigger in a response from sublingual salivary glands which produce a predominantly mucous saliva that can also become stringy in texture. This aids in digestion of food but has a way of exacerbating the less viscous mucous from the nasal cavity, keeping the viral-rich stickiness stuck around the pharynx because it’s difficult to swallow, resulting in irritation of pharyngeal tissues. One might awaken in the middle of the night with some nose stuffiness and a scratchy throat. The same may even experience a chill reflecting the body elevating its own temperature in response to infection. These warning signs need to be heeded.7
THE BEST DEFENSES
Some excellent and inexpensive remedies exist. But one must understand why they work and that making them effective requires some personal diligence.
At the first sign of a cold, hyper-hydration can be very effective for most people. To do this, drink an average size glass (6-8 ounces) of warm water every 10 minutes for an hour.8 You might feel as if you will slosh back and forth after this. You very likely will feel an accelerated need for urination. Fluids want to pour out of you. But something else happens too. The blood vessels, being enriched with water also help to diffuse water into various interstitial tissues and membranes throughout the body including those of the nasal cavity. It helps to break foreign bodies that may try to lodge there. Warm water is preferred over cold because the body must otherwise heat the water you take in, heat that would be better suited for the elevation of temperature it really needs in combating infection.
The thing to understand if you hyper-hydrate is that you can’t put it off. Do it immediately. If your first sign of a cold happens when you head out the door to an important activity, take a thermos. Time is the critical factor in using this method. If the infection becomes too embedded as a result of inaction, this trick will be less likely to avail anything for you.
If you encounter throat soreness, gargling with salt water does help to break up the stringy mucous that settles in the pharynx and helps to settle the pharyngeal salivary glands that produce them. Some adults have found a single aspirin, gradually dissolving and trickling down into the throat effective against the pain of an adult sore throat, a trick used by tradesmen in cold rainy environments. But its effectiveness also requires contact with the tissues of the pharynx and a thick layer of mucous won’t allow that. If you elect to use aspirin, it’s best to gargle first.
Two factors have been noted for combating colds: temperature and time.9 It’s why saunas have worked to promote health. But what if you don’t have a sauna? Nearly everyone has access to hot water. The Joint Commission for Accreditation of Health Care Organizations (JCAHO) for many years set the accepted range for domestic hot water in hospitals: 106-120 degrees Fahrenheit, though in recent years this has been tightened to 110-120 degrees. Over 120 degrees is considered scalding temperature.10
This is important to know because rhinovirus has a very tight optimal temperature range that’s a little lower than the core body temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (37 Celsius). Its range is 91.4 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit (33-35 Celsius). The typical range of temperature in the nasal cavity falls within that optimal range. 11
The outsides of the eyes often experience a cooler temperature than the core body temperature. During cold months some warming can be anticipated for pathogens within the tear ducts including the portions joining with the nasal cavity. In which case one would do well to check the condition of one’s eyes first thing in the morning, and if symptoms start midday to check them then as well. You might notice stickiness in the corner of the eye and the lower eyelid, and possibly some whiteness like pus if there’s anything bacterial involved. In this case, simply rubbing the eye won’t help. Instead, flush the eyes to wash them.
Eye flushes work very well when showering. Water temperature that’s good for this is at the low end of the older range set by JCAHO: 106 to 110 degrees. This elevates the temperature beyond what rhinovirus finds friendly, yet low enough to do no harm to the eyes. It’s the range one would experience with a nicely warm shower. Your eyes won’t be harmed at this temperature. They would encounter a higher temperature just walking around Phoenix or Las Vegas on a hot day.
Some shower nozzles, however, force a stream of water too sharp for this purpose. If that’s the case, it helps to bounce the stream from the shower head off the back of a clean hand into the eyes. This should work for most municipal systems with chemically treated water. If the domestic water system has become contaminated, or if you’re away from home, you still have recourse another way.
AN ALTERNATE APPROACH
It helps to keep a 4 ounce bottle of normal saline solution designed for eyewash. Most grocery chains and drug stores sell this from regular shelves. It requires no prescription. After all, it’s sterile salt water balanced to reasonably match the salinity of most bodily fluids. Let the bottle sit in warm water for a while to bring it into the temperature range best for flushing the eyes. You can use a microwave to heat water in a cup till warm and insert a bottle of normal saline for a few minutes, shaking the bottle periodically. Check the temperature on the inside of the forearm to verify that the temperature is warm but not hot. Wash your hands thoroughly. Then apply like you would eye drops without touching the tip of the bottle to your hands or your eyes. Flush out any gunk into a clean tissue or handkerchief and then flush again. This will not only clean the eyes and interdict pathogens at the most common point of entry to the nasal cavity, but will also soothe the eyes themselves.
A warm saline solution can also be effective snuffed up the nose or as nose drops. The principle behind this is much the same as what’s used in eye flushes, washing loose mucous and pathogens. For home made nose drops you can dissolve ¼ teaspoon of salt and ½ teaspoon of baking soda in 8 ounces of warm water, then apply to the nasal cavity through a nasal irrigation kit.12
Aside from eye flushes, application of a hot pack to the face and forehead can elevate the temperature of the sinuses beyond the range of the virus. Some people like to use a combination of hot and cold packs. The cold packs in this case drop the temperature to below the optimal range of the virus and may be preferred if you happen to experience pain. Use whichever works best for you. But do it as early as you can.
If possible, it’s best to not wear makeup while engaged in tackling cold symptoms. Eye makeup, especially mascara, can become easily contaminated with nearly anything as surely as the La Brea Tar Pits can swallow up a mastodon.
That means if your eyes become infected with a pathogen, you can easily transfer it on the tip of liquid eyeliner or a mascara brush. That means, if you become sick it’s best to replace eye makeup and to avoid using a new batch till you’re past any symptoms. If you absolutely have to use it as in obligatory stage work, discard it afterwards.13
For the same reason, never share eye makeup. Don’t take any chances on infecting a friend or coworker.
PERSONAL RESULTS THROUGH THE USE OF WATER
This writer used to experience colds every month except for summer, or an average of 9 colds per season. At my age a cold can easily turn serious, becoming a severe chest cold or bronchitis leading to pneumonia. With these techniques I have been able to reduce colds to an average of 1 per season and in many seasons I’ve succeeded in eliminating them entirely. I’ve also found initial cold symptoms knocked out in a matter of hours, even when working in environments where sick children liberally spread their contagion. Today it takes a particularly virulent strain to pass these defenses I have practiced and the costs of performing them regularly have been negligible.
I typically flush my own eyes whenever I enter the shower to bathe. But in 1994 I did something else to acclimatize myself to cold weather before travel. I regularly took what’s called a Scots Shower, also called, Scottish Shower.
The Scots Shower employs alternating hot and hold. After an initial steamy shower, close down the hot water valve for 15 seconds till the water feels just uncomfortably cool. Resume the hot water to bring up the body temperature for a couple of minutes and then go for another cool down for 30 seconds with water a little colder than before. Repeat this till you can go over a minute with a cold shower.14 The idea is to build resistance. This was necessary for me because I was traveling to the former Soviet Union in November when there’s a lot of sleet and snow at the onset of winter.
I emphasize this: the techniques described here do not cure the common cold. What they do instead is interdict rhinovirus and other pathogens from entry and buildup in the nasal cavity where they find the optimal conditions for replication. The body has its own defense against viruses through its own interferon, whose development is particular to each strain. Nobody has produced a laboratory interferon that will tackle every strain of virus.15 I discussed what I was doing with my own physician and he confirmed that the effectiveness is much like a security guard stops a bad guy from entering into a theater to plant a bomb.
WHEN TO SEE A DOCTOR
Not all viruses can be knocked down with these techniques. They don’t apply well to influenza. They don’t apply to other airborne pathogens like tuberculosis where bacteria transfer through sputum. Some cases may even require isolation of a patient from others. Some pathogens may require gowns, gloves, and medical dust mask. In certain strains, goggles or even a full plastic face shield may be required. Hospitals mark rooms set up for isolation, reversing air flow so that pathogens don’t escape the room by force of air handlers. This is done by relying upon an exhaust fan to draw outside air from the hallway or through a filter. These special techniques go far beyond what anyone can do to head off a common cold. It takes a doctor to determine what precautions are indicated.
If a cold goes directly to the chest, one can gain relief from an expectorant to facilitate the expulsion of phlegm. Some expectorants today also come with decongestants. They’re sold over the counter in pharmacies; however there are now restrictions on how much you can buy in the course of a month. A pharmacist will want to check your purchases through your driver’s license or identification card, simply because cold remedies have been abused by manufacturers of designer drugs. But if you aren’t winning in a couple of days or if symptoms worsen, you need a physician.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends seeing a doctor under the following conditions:
- If your oral temperature rises higher than 100.4° F
- If cold symptoms persist over 10 days
- Unusual or severe symptoms.16
Severe symptoms include excessively high fever or pain, or breathing becoming obstructed. If your color turns blue and you feel like you can’t get enough air, you may do well to suspect pneumonia and get to a doctor as soon as possible for diagnosis and treatment. If a physician prescribes a regimen, especially one of antibiotics or antiviral medication, follow the instructions exactly.
Fortunately, most colds don’t automatically signal something dire and with adequate prevention, one may avoid an infection becoming dire in the first place. The responsibility is yours. These techniques with water are cheap and readily available in most places. They enable anyone to stop a dreaded invader in its tracks, saving time, jobs, and even friends, especially those of us who can’t afford to miss a day of work at all.
Featured Image: A variation of the American flag in the colors associated with sickness including grey (as in deadness), and pale sickly green (like the Greek word for pale χλόρο or “chloro” as used in the Apocalypse of John to describe the color of the horse of the 4th horseman). The canton is a detail of a public domain diagram of the rhinovirus (Wikimedia) and the background is a tearful eye from a public domain image (Flickr).
- “Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others” Centers for Disease Control , CDC (accessed September 6, 2017) https://www.cdc.gov/features/rhinoviruses/index.html
- Harry Mobley. “How do antibiotics kill bacterial cells but not human cells?” Scientific American (n.d., accessed September 6, 2017) https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-do-antibiotics-kill-b/.
- Lee Ventola, MS. “The Antibiotic Resistance Crisis” NCBI (April 2015, accessed September 6, 2017) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4378521/.
- As described by a local physician in 1992.
- Any college anatomy course will confirm this.
- “Salivary Glands and Saliva” Vivo Pathophysiology (n.d., accessed September 6, 2017) http://www.vivo.colostate.edu/hbooks/pathphys/digestion/pregastric/salivary.html.
- Hyperhydration was recommended by a Seventh-Day Adventist physician in 1994.
- Noted by a registered physical therapist near Loma Linda in 1988.
- Known by the author who worked as a hospital engineer for over 20 years.
- Foxman, Ellen F.; Storer, James A.; Fitzgerald, Megan E.; Wasik, Bethany R.; Hou, Lin; Zhao, Honguy; Turner, Paul E.; Pyle, Anna Marie; and Iwasaki, Akiko. “Temperature-dependent defense against the common cold virus limits viral replication at warm temperature in mouse airway cells” PNAS 112, No. 3, p. 827 (January 20, 2015, accessed September 6, 2017) www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1411030112.
- Carol DerSarkiassen. “12 Natural Treatment Tips for Cold and Flu” WebMD (June 14, 2017, accessed September 6, 2017) http://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/12-tips-prevent-colds-flu-1#1
- Kristin Colling Jackson “Get Over A Cold Faster With These 7 Beauty Tips” Bustle (November 14, 2014, accessed September 6, 2017) https://www.bustle.com/articles/48585-get-over-a-cold-faster-with-these-7-beauty-tips-what-makeup-to-ditch-and.
- “What is a Scottish Shower?” wiseGEEK (n.d., accessed September 6, 2017) http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-a-scottish-shower.htm
- “Interferons: Boundless.com (n.d., accessed September 7, 2017) https://www.boundless.com/microbiology/textbooks/boundless-microbiology-textbook/immunology-11/innate-defenders-138/interferons-704-6649/.