Mark Twain did common cold sufferers a favor when he shared his experiences with some recommended remedies. He explains, “It is a good thing, perhaps, to write for the amusement of the public, but it is a far higher and nobler thing to write for their instruction — their profit — their actual and tangible benefit. The latter is the sole object of this article.”

Twain tried a variety of medicines and mixtures, too many to relate here (though his Curing a Cold is definitely worth a read). Here’s one sample of his amusing take on them: “A quart of salt water, taken warm, would come as near curing a cold as anything in the world. I hardly thought I had room for it, but I tried it anyhow. The result was surprising; I must have vomited three-quarters of an hour; I believe I threw up my immortal soul.” 

The common cold has plagued humans for a very long time, and it is my turn to feel the virulence of the virus that causes it. In fact, it could be one of many different viruses that give us the symptoms of the common cold. 

Rhinovirus is the group that is at fault much of the time, causing up to 50 per cent of colds. Rhinoviruses are active in early fall, spring and summer. Rhino means “nose” and describes the entry place for these viral cells. The temperature inside the nose, and coincidentally, the optimum temperature for a rhinovirus to live and reproduce, is 91 degrees. So, a perfect match.

Another type of virus responsible for some colds is coronaviruses. They are most active in winter and early spring, and although there are more than 30 kinds, only three or four infect humans. Respiratory syncytial virus is accountable for another 10 per cent of the colds we suffer through.

One of the problems (or successes) of these viruses is that humans cannot build up a resistance to them, so the symptoms they produce recur again and again. It has been estimated that kindergarteners get a cold an average of 12 times a year and adults seven times per year. However, not all of us are equally affected. Twenty-five per cent of folks with the virus show no symptoms of a cold. Lucky devils.

Nor can one pinpoint why they are among the sick 75 per cent. There is no evidence that cold weather can cause a cold; however, the cold weather keeps us inside and thus helps spread the virus. Exercise, diet and enlarged tonsils aren’t predictors either way, though stress and allergies can increase chances of getting infected.

The effects of this illness are staggering. A cold is the most frequently occurring illness in the world, and is the leading cause of doctor visits and missed work and school. One billion colds per year occur in residents of the U.S., and these cause 22 million days of school absences, up to 100,000 doctor visits, and approximately $20 billion in economic loss.

Most colds will work themselves out, and relief is usually found after the first 48 hours, with complete recovery about seven to 10 days later. Antibiotics are useless for a cold, and there is no cure. Best thing to do is to stay away from others so as not to share and spread these viruses.

The only fortunate thing about having a cold is that it isn’t the flu. Flu sufferers have higher fever, more intense and longer lasting illness, and headaches. The difference has been well expressed this way: “Having a cold is like being sideswiped by a bicycle, while the flu is more like being run over by a truck.”

That’s no consolation to this cold sufferer, who prefers not to be sideswiped (or sidelined) at all!

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.