The Common Cold: Myths and Facts

Antihistamines can help, but there is a lot of disagreement on this and other remedies. One thing really helps: Wash your hands a lot so you don't get a cold in the first place. Image (Image credit: Dreamstime)

Summer is over. School, crisp breezes and colored leaves are inevitable. But is the same true for catching a cold?

Most adults have two to four colds a year and children easily double that figure, surveys report. Despite the name, colds are not caused by cold weather but by warm humans. The only way to ensure that you never catch a cold virus, says Dr. Jack Gwaltney, Jr., a cold specialist at the University of Virginia, is to "become a hermit."

But knowing some uncommon facts about the common cold may help you sail from Halloween to St. Patty's day without stopping for a sneeze.

Kiss but don't shake

Not cut out for a Thoreau lifestyle? Here are some alternative solutions:

Wash your hands — a lot — and be aware that many people do not. And use soap, which is more effective than alcohol-based hand sanitizers. The key is to scrub well, for about 15 seconds.

Don't rub your eyes and no Eskimo kisses, but go ahead and give your sniffling sweetie a smooch. Cold viruses love eyes and noses but rarely leap mouth to mouth, says Gwaltney. And if a peck on the lips improves your mood, it may do more good than harm.


While a cold is a sign the body is battling an infection, many of the symptoms, such as congestion, are excessive methods of combat. The effectiveness of Airborne, zinc and other treatments remain controversial, but, in general, cold treatments try to shorten or block these gratuitous attacks.

Gwaltney advises starting treatment at the first hint of a cold because "[immune system] pathways get ramped up very quickly, and once they get started, they are hard to slow down." He recommends taking first-generation antihistamines (the older ones, like Dimetapp, which make you sleepy) and an anti-inflammatory, such as ibuprofen, until all symptoms have stopped.

But there is a lot of disagreement on treatments. The Mayo Clinic Women's HealthSource recommends skipping antihistamines, which dry up nasal membranes and slow the mucus flow that helps rid your nasal passages of germs.

Decongestants help ease stuffiness, according to the Mayo Clinic. They shrink swollen tissue inside the noses. But decongestant sprays or drops can worsen congestion if used more than two or three days.

Chicken soup, along with just about any fluid, can be useful, as liquids help loosen the mucus that causes congestion. Humidity can relieve congestion, too.

Just wait

Most treatments today address the cold symptoms, not the underlying infection. The future in cold care may lie in a cocktail of anti-inflammatory, anti-histamine and anti-viral medications, said Gwaltney. Anti-viral drugs are being tested but so far none are commercially available.

Creating a preventative vaccine, however, is less viable. Rhinoviruses, the most common cause of the common cold, have more than 100 different varieties. Acquiring immunity to one type does nothing to disarm the others.

Fortunately, says Gwaltney, each cold we battle makes us less susceptible to colds in general — enabling many people to grow old relatively sniffle-free. On the downside, studies with mice suggest that frequent colds can, over a lifetime, aggravate memory loss.

Robin Nixon Pompa

Robin Nixon is a former staff writer for Live Science. Robin graduated from Columbia University with a BA in Neuroscience and Behavior and pursued a PhD in Neural Science from New York University before shifting gears to travel and write. She worked in Indonesia, Cambodia, Jordan, Iraq and Sudan, for companies doing development work before returning to the U.S. and taking journalism classes at Harvard. She worked as a health and science journalist covering breakthroughs in neuroscience, medicine, and psychology for the lay public, and is the author of "Allergy-Free Kids; The Science-based Approach To Preventing Food Allergies," (Harper Collins, 2017). She will attend the Yale Writer’s Workshop in summer 2023.