In Praise of the Common Cold

Let’s talk about the common cold.  I’ve been suffering from a cold.  We suffer from colds, just as we suffer from tuberculosis or cancer.  Okay, maybe those are different, but it’s still proper to claim suffering.  Both TB and cancer have one advantage–they are, to some extent at least, curable.  The cold is not.

The cold is known by many names–nasopharyngitis, rhinopharyngitis and acute coryza.  You can have a head cold or a chest cold.  I’ve heard people down in the mountains of Kentucky where I grew up claim to have a “cold in the back,”  which is, quite frankly, medically impossible.  I’m not a doctor, but even I know better than that.

Not only is the cold incurable, it’s not even preventable.  Oh, you can wash your hands like Howard Hughes if you’d like.  You’ll still get a cold.  Forget about antibacterial cleansers.  It’s not a bacterium.  Same goes for antibiotics.  That’s right:  Antibiotics, the miracle drugs, are useless when faced with the common cold.

There is no vaccine, and there probably won’t ever be one.  Hell, I’m vaccinated against diphtheria, and I don’t even know what that is.  I don’t know anyone who’s had diphtheria, but everyone I know has had a cold.  Maybe that’s because of the vaccine.   The cold’s strength is that it has many causes, rendering it impervious to vaccination.

Dozens of viruses can cause a cold.  Think about that.  How can you avoid them all?  You can’t.  They’re everywhere.  Shake hands with someone.  That person might have just coughed the virus into his hand.  Consider all the weird crap flying around in the air that you can’t see.  Doorknobs, car handles, coffee cups, keyboards, telephones, cute babies, kindly dowagers, rank strangers, good friends, family and everything and everyone else on Earth are crawling with viruses.  We have no defense.

According the Mayo Clinic–and that’s a plenty smart crowd right there–the virus can come in through your mouth, nose and eyes.  EYES?  Okay, I’ll just close my eyes and hold my breath.  Now, I’m safe.

The most common cold virus is the rhino-virus.  That just sounds awful.  You think the Bird Flu is bad?  How about catching something from a freakin’ rhino?

The bottom line is that the cold is everywhere. Hence, it is common, I suppose.  You’re going to catch it or, more accurately, it will catch you.  When it does, all sorts of weirdness happens.

The human body is amazing machinery.  Despite our best efforts to destroy it through neglect and abuse, it keeps chugging along.   Then, we are exposed to the cold, and it gets us.  The virus crawls into us, and we don’t even know it.  We can’t avoid it.  If it were more difficult to contract, perhaps we’d have a chance.  “Say, would mind holding my snot rag?”  No civilized person would ask such favor nor would any sane man agree to this request.  We will, however, gladly shake the hand of a stranger.  The cold knows this.

A bit of good news is that you can’t catch a cold from actually getting cold.  You can go outside naked, and you won’t get sick.  Your neighbors might, but you’ll be okay–assuming you don’t freeze to death.   The belief that a cold is caused by cold air is an old wives’ tale, and we know old wives are terribly unreliable.  In fact, you’re more likely to never catch a cold if you just stand outside–far away from people with colds.

We’ve all had colds.  Sometimes, they aren’t too bad–just a few days of sniffling and coughing.  Sometimes–like the one I now have– they are awful.  You ache and cough and sneeze.  Your head fills with enough mucous to supply a healthy human for years.  You don’t sleep well.  You’re tired all the time.  Give it a week, and you’ll feel better.  That’s how it goes with colds.

How do you know if you have a cold?  Well, the snot is a good indicator. The cold causes us to produce prodigious amounts of mucous.  I guess there’s a reason for that, but it’s really gross.  You can try to blow it all out through your nose, but that never works.  As soon as you expel some copious amount, somehow it fills right back up.  Plus, you then have the displeasure of handling or perhaps carrying with you a snot rag–the nastiest of all accessories.

Most of the time, we have no choice but to actually swallow the mucous as it continually drains into our bodies.  Any time you sniffle, you’re really just sucking the snot back into your head so that you can swallow it.   You’re constantly producing and drinking snot.  No wonder a cold makes you feel so bad.

(As aside, my mother did not allow the use of the word “snot.”  She said it “nauseated” her.  She preferred “mucous” or “phlegm,” one of the nastiest words in the English language.)

By the way, have you ever seen one of those people who just blows his damn nose on the ground?  (I say “his,” because I’ve never seen a woman do it.)  This guy kind of pinches the end of his nose, pulls it slightly and cuts loose.  It should be okay to shoot someone who does that.

I heard somewhere that all the stuff that makes you feel bad (coughing, sneezing, runny nose, aches) are actually signs that your immune system is at working attacking the offending virus.  If so, I have a tremendous immune system, because it’s made me feel like road kill for days now.

A sniffle or perhaps some congestion could be the first signs.  Maybe you have a little cough or a sneeze or two.  Then, the mucous factory goes into three shifts of production, 24/7.  The cold has you in its icy grip from which there is no escape, at least for a week or so.  What do you do?

You can take medicine, but it won’t cure you.  It will treat your symptoms, but they won’t go away.  You can take a decongestant.  It will help a little.  Oh, all the mucous is still there, it’s just dammed up in your head now.  Cough medicine can help, especially if it’s laced with codeine or morphine or something like that.  Hell, you’ll still cough, but you won’t care anymore.

I like Mucinex.  It actually makes the mucous drain even faster, turning into a sort of snot water.  I don’t why something that gross makes me feel better, but it does.  Sometimes, I will mix Mucinex with something that does the exact opposite by trying to dry up the mucous.  Maybe I’ll slug some cough syrup as a chaser.  Then, I end up with new symptoms or “side effects,” as the doctors call them.

When I was a kid, my mother would rub vapor rub on my chest and under my nose.  I have no idea what this was supposed to do.  Maybe stinking like that crap makes the cold itself seem like no big deal.

Despite the power and prevalence of the common cold, it still gets little respect.  It’s a common cold, after all.  Ever hear of common cancer?  Ask someone if he or she is sick, you might get this response:  “No. It’s just a cold.”  You’ll never hear:  “I’m fine.  It’s just syphilis.” 

One reason the cold doesn’t get more respect is that it won’t kill you.  It won’t.  There was the Spanish Flu Epidemic.  We’ll never have a Mongolian Cold Epidemic.   A cold just won’t kill you.  It’s like being attacked by swarm of gnats.  It will annoy the Hell out of you and make you miserable; however, in the end, it will spare your life.

It could be that’s the reason there is no cure.  Why waste time trying to cure something that won’t kill people? Our resources are better spent on cancer, AIDS, TB and the like.  Even less deadly diseases like leprosy, polio and small pox are much more serious with their maiming and crippling side effects.  Carrying around a snot rag is no big deal compared to living in an iron lung.

You might now say:  “I know this guy who got a cold, and then died of pneumonia.”  To this, I say:  So what?  That poor bastard died of pneumonia, not a cold.  No one ever died of a cold.  Blame pneumonia if you like, but don’t put that rap on the common cold.

Despite the fact that the cold will not slay us, it still demands respect. It is pervasive and incurable.  Think about all the diseases we can cure now.  Not the cold.  We can’t even vaccinate against it.  Hell’s Bells, we wiped out small pox and are damn close to doing the same thing to polio.  The cold?  Nope.

Consider Magic Johnson.  He was diagnosed with HIV over twenty years ago.  Look at the man now!  He looks great. Feels great.  If he had a damn cold for twenty years, he’d look and feel like crap.  Would it kill him? No, it would not, but after two or three years, he’d be okay with dying.

The cold doesn’t discriminate.  From the homeless to the landed gentry, everyone gets a cold.  If a billionaire gets a deadly form of cancer, you can bet he’ll get every treatment known to man.  It will be much better than you or I would get.  Give that same man a cold, and they’ll hand him a snot rag and a bottle of NyQuil.  He has no more chance of a cure than a vagrant. The common cold:  The disease world’s great equalizer.

Despite making us feel like crud, the cold is relatively gentle in its effects on us.  Yes, you’ll sniffle, but you won’t bleed from your eyes.  You’ll cough a hell of a lot, but your organs won’t fail.  You may get a fever, but it will be low-grade.  You won’t get paralyzed or have seizures or go blind.  You won’t vomit or have uncontrollable diarrhea.  Yes, it may be worse for infants and the elderly, but isn’t that true of all diseases?

So, the cold may well be common.  Indeed, it is likely swirling about your face at this very moment.  You can’t stop it.  Just accept your fate.  It would reckless to suggest that the cold is our friend.  It certainly is not.  It is, however, worthy of our respect as the unconquerable granddaddy of all diseases.  Now, hand me my snot rag.

© 2014

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