Battling the Common Cold

I have a cold.

I am coughing.

It is hard to sleep. It would be inconsiderate to go to the gym.

I am sad.

I am handling this sadness the way I handle many of my problems in life, by spending so much time exhaustively researching solutions that the problem goes away on its own.

I just finished reading Ah-CHOO! The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold by Jennifer Ackerman. Written in 2010, it summarizes the existing body of research on the common cold.

Some highlights from the book:

Kale cannot prevent the common cold: Adults come down with an average of 2-4 colds a year and it’s not a reflection of a weakened immune system. How healthy or physically active adults were going into cold studies didn’t impact their susceptibility to the virus. Kids get between 10-12 colds a year… and guess what, parents are likely to be on the upper echelon of the 2-4 average because we catch those colds from our kids.

Stop touching your face: Research suggests that it’s not sneezing and coughing that spreads germs so much as mucus from runny noses. The virus proliferates in mucus and not saliva, so when people wipe or blow their noses, the virus often spreads to surfaces they touch afterward. Healthy people touch those surfaces, then touch their eyes or noses and that’s where the virus most commonly enters the body. Washing your hands before you eat is great, but for the common cold, washing your hands before you rub your eyes (your tear ducts connect to your sinuses and it’s been shown viruses can enter that way) or your nose, is most important. So just stop touching your nose and rubbing your eyes! Except… people touch their faces subconsciously with great regularity. Videotaped and observed subjects have been shown touching surfaces and then their faces as little as 3 times an hour to 15 times per hour.

Don’t reach for Purell, antibacterial soap, or antibiotics: Colds and the flu are from viruses, not bacteria. The best way to clean your hands of viruses is to wash them well with soap and water. Likewise, antibiotics won’t shorten the duration of the cold. Using antibiotics or antibacterial soaps can kill off the good bacteria in your body and create resistant strains of bad bacteria – save it for when it’ll help!

Cough syrups are relatively ineffective: Did we secretly know that? I feel like we may have. But people buy them anyway. Cough syrups can be dangerous for young children, and given how ineffective they are the author strongly discourages their use for kids. There may also be some negative consequences of suppressing coughs; they’re our bodies’ natural way to clear out mucus. Web MD agrees on all points.

Other ineffective things? Zinc, Vitamin C, and Echinacea. Zinc sprays like Zicam have been linked to loss of smell, and the author cautions against them as both ineffective and having this rare but serious side effect.

What is somewhat effective: Old school anti-histamines like diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and pseudoepinephrine (Sudafed) do help reduce nasal congestion and can alleviate the symptoms of your cold. They haven’t been shown to reduce the duration, but they can make you more comfortable and potentially reduce risk of a sinus infection from over congestion. (“New” antihistamines like Claritin do not work for colds.) Lozenges, both medicated (Halls) and non-medicated (Ricola), have been shown to effectively curb your coughing fits.

What doesn’t hurt: Hot liquids, steam (assuming it’s a comfortable temperature), hugs, neti pots, saline only nasal sprays.

So…. I feel a bit better reading this book and realizing that I could not have kale-and-exercised my way out of catching this cold. I feel a little less freaked out when someone coughs in public near me, but more cautious when it comes to touching public surfaces. I feel MUCH more paranoid whenever I belatedly realize I’m rubbing my eyes or touching my face.

If this book taught me anything, it’s the sad truth that colds are an inevitable part of life, and our ability to manage our symptoms is fairly limited.

Tea and patience.

I was hoping my cold would be gone by the time I finished reading the book and writing this post….

I guess I’m better at the tea part.



  1. I’m just getting over a bad cold and I had to temporarily give up running, which made me sad too. I’m in the middle of training for a full in January, so it was especially frustrating. I felt well enough this morning to get up a little bit early to test the waters and I ran 1 whole mile. Yay me.

    I knew about the ‘not rubbing your eyes’ thing and I always try to leave my face alone if I’m out and about, but maybe I rubbed my eyes without realizing it. Stupid colds.

    Get well soon, Kelly!

    1. Hope you feel better soon, too! Best wishes on your training for the full in January. Lingering coughs are the worst for running – hoping we both kick these fast!

  2. Kelly, leave it to you to figure out a way to blog even when down for a cold. Thank you for not going to the gym! Hope you are feeling better. I learned a lot from this post. Best, Cheryl

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