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Stop Cold Germs Before They Start : First Step: Wash Your Hands of the Annoying Viruses

April 11, 1987|NORMAN H. BROWN | Norman H. Brown is a free-lance writer and former medical editor in Providence, R.I. and

What should come to mind when you think of preventing colds? Taking plenty of Vitamin C? Staying away from sick family and friends? Keeping out of drafts? None of the above, say health experts.

Actually, the best way to reduce the risk of catching a cold may be washing your hands frequently. The reason: "Research suggests that a cold virus is most likely to be passed along by direct hand contact or by touching a contaminated surface," says Dr. Jack Gwaltney, a professor of internal medicine at University of Virginia School of Medicine in Charlottesville.

A prime example: If a friend who happens to have a cold uses your telephone, her virus may travel from the phone to your fingers the next time you make a call--and from there to your nose, where cold viruses flourish. The other chief place germs can enter your body and infect you is the eyes: Rub them after touching a virus-contaminated surface, and you may very well catch a cold, too.

"Current evidence also suggests that colds are most contagious during the first two or three days after symptoms surface," notes Gwaltney. During this time, viruses on hands and those left on hard surfaces or handkerchiefs may survive for up to two hours--ample time to be transmitted to someone else. Though not all health professionals agree, some advise that you stay away from someone who is newly sick and provide cold sufferers with their own towels, washcloths and box of tissues. Even spraying household disinfectant on frequently used surfaces, like telephones and doorknobs, may help stop the spread of cold viruses.

Following are common myths about colds that are worth dispelling:

- Cold air--While hands may be guilty of spreading viruses, cold weather is not. Nor, by the way, is merely standing in a chilling draft or getting your feet wet. These factors can, however, leave you more vulnerable to a cold virus, as can exposure to cold, dry outdoor air alternating with warm indoor air, which may dry out mucous membranes in your nose and throat.

- Immunity--Though you may have successfully dodged one cold or just gotten over being ill, that doesn't mean you won't get sick again. "Most colds are brought on by one of the many types of rhinoviruses," says Dr. Lewis Drusin, professor of public health at New York Hospital, Cornell Medical Center. Research has identified more than 100 of these cold-causing rhinoviruses. So, while you may build up an immunity to one cold virus, you can be attacked shortly thereafter by one of the many others.

- Close contact--Contrary to popular belief, neither sneezing nor coughing are likely to be responsible for transmitting a cold virus, according to Dr. Neil Schachter, professor of medicine and medical director of the respiratory therapy department at Mount Sinai Medical Center, New York City. Also, chances are slim that you'll catch a cold from a kiss, since saliva contains only small quantities of the cold virus.

- Vitamin C--While there has been much talk about Vitamin C and its possible benefits to a cold sufferer, there is as yet no scientific evidence indicating that megadoses of Vitamin C will prevent you from catching a cold. However, according to Schachter, regularly taking Vitamin C may be helpful in decreasing the severity or length of a cold. Take note, though: Vitamin C can actually be harmful if you have gout or are prone to developing kidney stones.

- Antibiotics--Because a cold is caused by a virus--not bacteria--antibiotics won't help alleviate your symptoms. And because there are so many cold viruses, no vaccine has yet been developed to fight them all.

Since there is no actual cure for a cold, getting better means letting your virus run its natural course of seven to 10 days; you may, however, be able to find temporary relief from its unpleasant symptoms.

- For congestion--Check with your pharmacist for an effective non-prescription antihistamine. If you don't like the accompanying drowsiness, try drinking any hot, steamy beverage (like tea or chicken soup); it will help loosen the mucus in the nasal passages, thus allowing you to breathe more easily. Nasal spray can also offer fast (albeit temporary) relief.

- For a cough--Try preparations that contain dextromethorphan, a prescription cough suppressant considered effective by the FDA.

- For a sore throat--Pain can be relieved with anesthetic lozenges or spray or by gargling with warm salt water.

Finally, the best advice for shaking a cold is the old advice: Get lots of rest, drink plenty of fluids and take aspirin or aspirin substitutes.

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