Prime time: Fall colds nothing to sneeze at

I was at the grocery store this weekend, and two women came up to me screaming, "We know you! Yadda yadda yadda!"

They were so funny and friendly that I figured we must know each other. But then "Mr. Uncomfortable" hit me, because I couldn't figure out who they were. I'm terrible with names, so I'm always embarrassed when I don't recognize someone.

What was I to do? I did what any sensible person would do: I stared at them like Renee Zellweger– squinted eyes and dazed.

I was glad to learn I didn't know them. One of the ladies said I might know her mother because she worked in the department that neighbored my office when I was a fellow at UVA. I didn't know her, but I knew of the Infectious Disease doctor she worked with, who was famous for research with the common cold.

I mentioned to these two nice women that I remembered learning that an Infectious Disease doctor once had women in the community participate in a cold-prevention study. Half of the women dipped their fingers in iodine, so their fingers were stained brown. No dipping for the other half. The results: the "dippers" did not catch the common cold as much as the "non-dippers."

The common cold is usually transmitted by hand-to-hand contact with infected nasal secretions, and then the person invites the virus into the body by touching his/her nose or eye. So perhaps the iodine dippers did not catch cold as much because their fingers were sterilized from dipping, or because these dippers were more conscious of not touching their faces with their stained fingers. Possibly the dippers were avoided and treated like lepers because their fingers were all brown. (I can hear the gossip, "Girlfriend needs a manicure. Achoo!")

The two women at the grocery store found the study to be odd. One said, "Who picks their nose? That's gross." I said that almost everyone picks his or her nose: with a tissue, in the shower, or Geronimo style. Do we all dig for gold?

The common cold is due to viruses: rhinoviruses, RSV, adenoviruses, and coronaviruses. There are hundreds of different types of these viruses, which makes it very difficult to be immune to the common cold. Twenty-six million days of school absences and 23 million days of work absences each year are due to the common cold.

On average, an infant catches six colds a year and adults one to three. People with kids ages one to four years old catch colds more than anyone else. (Gee, that makes me want to visit a day care center right now!) Children are the biggest reservoir of cold viruses– especially when they're touching each other's faces, sharing toys, and coughing on each other. In Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, I'm sure all those children in prison were sick all year long.

Early spring and fall are the #1 times for rhinovirus, and the winter is the #1 time for coronavirus. We don't know why cold viruses are seasonal. Maybe it's a plot to ruin vacations.

As a practicing physician, I always wash my hands after examining a patient, and I don't touch my face. Disinfectant sprays containing phenol/alcohol kill viruses that can survive for hours on tables, pens, and other surfaces. However, one study showed that 56 percent of people caught the cold via air transmission. What a bummer!

I don't like to be a Howard Hughes: germ-phobic. But I do take precautions: I don't shake hands with someone who's sick, I don't inhale the air if someone coughs in my direction, I don't touch my face unless I wash my hands first. You should follow all these rules too.

But under no circumstance should you give someone the "cold" shoulder.

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