Maze of Twisty Little Passages

by Jim Poston

‘Tis the season for colds and influenza.  From minor annoyance to knocking you flat out to even killing you, colds and flu are the bane of our existence in the winter.  They both are respiratory infectious diseases caused by viruses and have some symptoms in common, but you definitely know when you’ve been run over by the flu as opposed to being dinged by a cold.

Colds have been with us humans forever.  The oldest existing medical text, the Egyptian Ebers papyrus, described cold symptoms and treatment around 1550 BC.  The disease became known as a “cold” in the 16th century because the symptoms were similar to exposure to cold weather.

In 400 BC, the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates wrote that bleeding was commonly used to treat the illness, but was worthless.  He believed colds were caused by a build-up of waste matter on the brain.  One of the treatments was to get rid of excess phlegm by vomiting it out.

Ancient Roman physician and philosopher, Pliny the Elder, assembled many folk remedies in his Natural History, such as kissing “the hairy muzzle of a mouse,” eating a wolf’s liver mulled in wine, eating frog legs “stewed in their own liquor,” or drinking horse saliva for three days.

In 60 AD, Pedacius Dioscorides was a Roman surgeon working for Nero.  He recommended chicken soup as not only efficacious but delicious, and it retains its image as a cold & flu healer to this day.   

Modern science has found that an amino acid called cysteine in chicken soup acts as a decongestant, so it’s not just a comfort food placebo — it actually helps. 

Another ancient treatment which has been found to have a scientific basis is a tea made with ma huang, which the Chinese have used for 3,000 years to treat congested nasal passages.  Turns out it contains pseudoephedrine, which is a decongestant ingredient commonly used in over-the-counter cold remedies.

Other medieval treatments turned out to be useful in ways other than intended.  In the Middle Ages, some Christians believed that when you sneezed, the soul could leave the body, so cold sufferers were supposed to cover their mouths.  Since the virus is airborne, this actually helped prevent the spread of the disease, although if you sneeze into your hand, you probably ended up spreading it anyway.

American scientist, politician, postmaster, etc, Benjamin Franklin, conducted studies on cold victims and concluded that it was transmitted through the air between individuals, and wasn’t the result of wet clothing and dampness in the air as was commonly believed in the 18th century.  He observed that sailors, despite having to wear wet clothing as an occupational hazard, rarely had colds.  Further, he noted that ”people often catch cold from one another when shut up together in close rooms, coaches, etc., and when sitting near and conversing so as to breathe in each other’s transpiration …’

Yeah, what he said. 

Because of that, the most effective weapon against catching a cold is isolation.  If you’re not in contact with any infected people (or their residue), you’re unlikely to catch one of the 250 rhinoviruses or coronaviruses that are the true culprits behind “colds”.

Unfortunately that isn’t practical, although a traffic engineer friend of mine did limit himself to a separate floor of the house when he or his wife caught a cold.  He had other weird ideas.  Never heard how effective his domestic isolation was.

The next best thing is to prevent the virus from getting from a sickly person through any of the holes in your head, primarily your eyes, nose or mouth.  Wash your hands often.  Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth with your hands.

One of the standard practices at NDOT’s Road Operations Center is for the operator to wipe down his workstation with disinfectant wipes at the end of the shift.  Check the label and look for ones that kill the influenza virus, human coronavirus, and e.coli.  Wipe down all surfaces liberally.  And don’t go cheap.  If the wipe runs out of juice, just use another one.

Viruses have been shown to survive on indoor surfaces for seven days, although they remain virulent for only about 24 hours.  All viruses will live longer on hard surfaces like doorknobs or computer keyboards than on soft surfaces like cloth.  In fact, infectious flu viruses can survive on tissues for only 15 minutes. 

Most viruses which cause colds only survive on hands for a short amount of time, even just a few minutes.  But 40% of rhinoviruses are still infectious on hands after an hour, so get them off you and don’t touch your head holes until you do!

I have more cold & flu ruminations to regale you with, but I’ll just have to hold it in until next time.

Jim Poston

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