The Cold Facts

Answering parents’ questions about the common cold.

While it’s inevitable that your child will occasionally come down with a cold, you can avoid some of the confusion surrounding its potential causes and cures. In my 20-plus years as a pediatrician, I have responded to all sorts of misunderstandings about the common cold. Here are the questions I hear most frequently.

Can you catch a cold from the cold weather?

It was once believed that malaria was caused by bad air around swamps. However, mosquitoes, also plentiful in swampy areas, were actually what carried the disease. In a similar way, cold air and respiratory disease are related, but the connection is much more complicated than just cold temperatures cause colds.

Though simply being exposed to cold weather doesn’t directly cause colds, the immune system gets stressed when the body’s core temperature drops, which might cause a person to get sick. In addition, the cold can cause vasoconstriction. Vasoconstriction is when blood vessels like those found in the nose narrow. This can lead to dryness, and the dryness compromises the nose’s ability to filter infections. Upon returning to warm air, rebound vasodilation occurs, where a person’s hands get pink and the nose starts running as blood returns to the vessels. The resulting sniffles cause people to breathe through their mouths, which bypasses the nose’s air filtration capabilities. As a result, it becomes easier to inhale the virus-bearing mucus that can cause colds and lower respiratory infections.

If my child gets a cold, is it because he or she has a weak immune system?

If you think of the immune system as the goalie, then scored goals are severe infections such as pneumonia, sepsis or meningitis. Those illnesses are what people with weak immune systems get a lot, and they usually wind up in the hospital. Following this analogy, a cold is a save: The infection enters the nose and goes no further. It’s just that the other team has lots of offensive players.

After someone gets a cold, however, the symptoms and duration of the cold are largely determined by the immune system. Most cold symptoms are produced by the body’s immune system physically responding to the rhinovirus. The result is that someone with a cold who has a stronger immune system will produce more mucus. Someone with a weaker immune system will sniffle longer, but less dramatically. The child with the weaker immune system is also likely to have more complications such as sinusitis or ear infections.

Does chicken soup really cure colds?

While chicken soup isn’t a miracle cure, it helps to end a cold in a way. Soup is mostly water, tends to be palatable to a sick child and thus serves as a good means to hydrate at a time when hydration is especially important.

Will zinc help cure a cold?

When it is administered within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms, zinc effectively shortens the duration of the common cold. Keep in mind that zinc should not be used long term because if high doses build up in the body, it can be toxic.

Should kids remain active when they have a cold or stay in bed?

While bed rest is overkill for a cold, the activity level should depend on your child’s tolerance. If your child has been tiring much easier than usual, though, consider seeing your doctor. Even without a fever, your child may have something more serious than a cold.

Is there truth to the saying “starve a fever, feed a cold?”

The saying “starve a fever, feed a cold” should really be “hydrate a fever and hydrate a cold.” People with fever generally won’t want to eat, nor should they be forced to, but fluid intake should be strongly encouraged.

How can cold germs be avoided?

To avoid cold germs, your family should take the usual precautions of washing hands, not putting fingers in mouths and not sharing other people’s plates, towels and bitten food. In addition, zinc and vitamin D appear to have some protective effect when used appropriately. If someone in your family gets a cold, make sure he or she knows how to do the Dracula cough, where you cough into your inner elbow rather than your hand.