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

The Flu Blues

I don’t have the flu–at least not yet.  My wife does.  So does my 10-year-old son.  My other sons–17 and 19–also don’t have it.  My 17-year-old rarely leaves the basement and, when he does, it is usually out the back door.  I find this habit both annoying and disquieting, but now I embrace it as preventative health care.  My oldest son is home from college on Christmas break.  If he can avoid the spreading virus for the next 24 hours, he will be on his way back to Pittsburgh.  He attends Carnegie Mellon University, the alma mater of such diverse personalities as Andy Warhol, John Forbes Nash and Lenny and Squiggy of Laverne & Shirley fame.  His academic rigors can ill afford to be interrupted by disease.  On my advice, he is staying away from his childhood home except to pack his belongings and flee.

How bad is this flu?  Pretty bad.  My 10-year-old, normally an energetic cuss, has been rendered almost immobile.  My wife, too, has been felled, for the time being at least.  The good news is that the horrid virus has not diminished her ability to bark orders.  Thus, our home will continue to run like a well-oiled machine.

I now face a conundrum. My office is less than two miles from home, making it an oasis from the disease around me.  I must, of course, occasionally visit them while they are sick.  How can I make enough of an appearance to still be engaged as the titular head of the household, yet protect myself as any sane person would?

Before proceeding, you should know that the flu fascinates me a bit.  Several years ago I read The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History by John M. Barry.  It is an excellent book about the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918.  THAT was a bad flu, killing in the neighborhood of 40 million people, including 600,000 in one month in the U.S. Since then, I’ve read a lot of material about the flu.  If I wanted to appear brainy, I could rant about various flu strains, antigen drift, corona virus and other minutia.  But it all comes down to this:  The flu comes in many forms, changes constantly, is highly contagious and incurable.  The good news, as Barry notes in his book, is that–even its deadlier forms–it’s just the flu.  It won’t kill you.  Probably.  Now, if you’re elderly, it can lead to pneumonia which no old person wants.  Bad stuff there.  Much worse than the flu.

How do you know if you have the flu?  Oh, there are many symptoms.  Here is a simple test:  Are you coughing like you have Black Lung and do you feel like crap?  If so, you may have the flu.

Even though I won’t pretend to be a doctor, I do want to clarify something.  There is no stomach flu.  There are viruses which will cause unimaginable gastrointestinal disruption and strip you of your dignity.  You can be like I was about year ago.  Start feeling a little weird in your stomach and then–BOOM!–puking pizza through your nose for an hour.  But, that’s not the flu.  Could be a virus. Maybe it’s bacteria, i.e., food poisoning.  Just don’t call it the flu.  The flu is the flu.  If you say you have the stomach flu, it makes as much sense as saying you have a facial hernia.

Anyway, back to me (as if we ever left that topic to begin with).  Once the disease hit, I had to think fast to protect myself.  I considered several options before settling on one:


Like any animal, fight or flight is my reaction to terror.  In this case, flight is the only reasonable option.  My initial plan was to get a room at the Hampton Inn across the highway from my home.  It’s close to my office and home.  I could stay there until the trouble passes, plus feign immediate availability for the sick.

I love Hampton Inn, by the way.  I travel a fair amount for work to many places that don’t have 5 Star Hotels.  Most areas do, however, have a Hampton Inn.  They are all pretty much the same.  Nice, clean rooms, pool, exercise room and free breakfast.  Good deal.

My wife shot down my running away plan.  I simply asked, “How bad would it be if I got me a room over at the Hampton and just brought you all stuff when you need it?”  Her answer:  “Very bad [cough, cough, cough].”


I have a friend who will occasionally come up with an idea for something.  He will call these ideas “Plan Q.”  Why?  I don’t know.  I considered calling this Plan Q, but–while a fine fellow–he is a litigious sort who would likely take umbrage at this.  So, I call this Plan B.

Here are the steps of Plan B:

1.  Wife and Son retreat to the master bedroom of our home on the second floor (now called the “Phlegm Chamber”),  It has a queen-sized bed, television, sofa, ample books and a bathroom.  In keeping with today’s lingo, we will call these wretched souls the “Ratchet.”

2.  Dry foodstuffs, MREs, liquids, medicine and supplies will have been previously stocked in the Phlegm Chamber.  This will include, but not be limited to, Theraflu, Tamiflu, Kleenex, NyQuil, Advil, Tylenol, magazines, newspapers and a legal pad in case they want to draw.

3.  Once the Ratchet are safely ensconced, duct tape will place along the door facing.  This will ensure that the deadly miasma produced by their constant breathing and coughing will remain contained within the Phlegm Chamber, unable to escape to the rest of the house, now known as the “Clean Zone.”

4.  Cell phones will be provided to allow text messaging and limited phone calls to me.  I will guarantee a response within two to three hours of any message left with me, unless I am napping.  In that case, I may respond the next day, if at all.

5.  The Ratchet will not be allowed in the Clean Zone until they have gone 24 hours without a fever.  This is a bit of gamble, because I’m not insane enough to check their temperatures myself.  However, if they venture out while still feverish, I’m sure there’s some app for constantly monitoring a rectal thermometer.  If not, I’ll get my egghead kid at Carnegie Mellon to invent one.

6.  Once the Ratchet are able to leave the Phlegm Chamber, they will immediately visit a doctor to confirm that they are no longer contagious.  Once this is confirmed in writing, they are free to venture about the Clean Zone wearing appropriate surgical masks until all coughing has subsided.  Since the Clean Zone is likely to be a bit messy, the Ratchet are then expected to help straighten up a bit.

The problem with Plan B, despite its ingenious detail, is that it requires cooperation from the Ratchet.  Thus far, that cooperation has been lacking.


The name Howard Hughes likely doesn’t mean much to young folks.  To people of a certain age, like me, his name conjures up the image of fabulous wealth, daring adventure and, of course, crippling lunacy.

Hughes made fortunes in the tool, film and aviation industries.  He once declared that his goal was to be the greatest golfer, pilot and film maker on Earth and the richest man in the world.  Except for golf, he could at various times have laid claim to all those titles.

When Hughes was in his 50’s, he developed, at the very least, serious obsessive-compulsive disorder.  Eventually, he retreated to one of his hotels, sitting in the dark, naked, watching the film Ice Station Zebra over and over.  He was so obsessed with germs that he wouldn’t wearing clothes or even bathe.  He covered his body in Kleenex and put the empty boxes on his feet.  His hair grew to his shoulders and beard to his chest.  He collected his bodily waste in jars.  He hired a staff of Mormons to serve him, because he believed them to be clean.  He had a good point about that.

A dramatic recreation of Howard Hughes's last days.

A dramatic recreation of Howard Hughes’s last days.

I’ve thought about adopting Hughes’s lifestyle, at least until the plague passes.  But, I’ll have to pass.  First, I’m concerned that I would quickly become enamored of living the life of a billionaire and not be able to return to my Regular Joe existence.  Second, being naked bothers me, especially in front of Mormons.  Finally, although it sounds like it would be effective defense against influenza, I suspect that I might expose myself to other equally deadly germs.


I’m left with an all-out defensive effort to protect myself.  Here are my tools:

  • MASKS:  I am wearing a surgical mask at all times.  Two, on occasion.  The downside is that I’ve discovered that I have foul breath.  My breathing also fogs up my reading glasses.

Your author fends off sure death.

  • GLOVES:  I’m wearing latex gloves.  That’s right–latex.  I don’t have a latex allergy.  Or a gluten allergy, either.  In fact, if they made latex gloves infused with gluten, I’d wear them just to prove what a bad ass I am.
  • HAND WASHING:  I’m washing my hands every minute or so–even with gloves on.  My skin is now like that of radiation burn victim, but I’m germ free.
  • LOOK, DON’T TOUCH:  This is simple.  Don’t touch anything. If you have to touch, use your elbows or feet.  The one exception is the remote control, of course.  You can scrub it with bleach and it’s as good as new.
  • BOILING:  Boil things.  You’d be surprised at how many things can be boiled.  Food, for example.  Toothbrushes. Shoes.  Some clothes.  Your hands.  When in doubt, boil it.  Caveat: It doesn’t work well with electronic devices.
  • MEDICINE:  Take all manner of medication.  If the Ratchet have prescriptions, take those.  Buy your own.  Just keep taking them.  Yes, the flu is incurable–as far as we know.  You might hit the right combination and win a Nobel Prize to boot.

This last plan, like many good ones, was born of desperation.  Yet, it has been remarkably effective so far.  Of course, the germs are everywhere, stalking me, crawling on me.  I am certain that all of this will ultimately fail me.  What now?  I wonder if Ice Station Zebra is on Blu-Ray?

© 2013