Jennifer Ackerman's "Ah-Choo: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold"

Sunday, August 29, 2010


The Uncommon Life

of Your Common Cold

By Jennifer Ackerman.

Twelve. 245 pp. $22.99

Veteran science writer Jennifer Ackerman took guinea-pig journalism to a mundane but potentially dangerous level in researching her new book, "Ah-choo!" As she puts it, "One Monday in October, against the counsel of friends, I applied to catch a cold." As colds go, the one that was injected into Ackerman's nose as part of a study was a rather bad one -- it went to her chest, and not until 10 days after the first sniffle did she "get over the residual, nagging hack."

Ackerman's experiment leads her to dismiss many commonly held misbeliefs about the cold. The idea, for example, that a cold is a punishment meted out to those who go outside in the winter thinly clad or who somehow get their feet wet may work in Victorian novels, but not in real life. Another misimpression is that colds are most commonly spread via droplets expelled into the air when sufferers cough or sneeze. The consensus nowadays among coldologists is that transmission by touch from nose to hand to someone else's hand (and then to his or her mouth) is far more common.

At the end of the book, Ackerman presents treatments recommended by various experts whom she consulted along the way. When he feels a cold coming on, Jack Gwaltney Jr., an emeritus professor at the University of Virginia Medical School, "takes two single-ingredient medications every 12 hours until his cold symptoms clear -- a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug . . . such as ibuprofen or naproxen to ease cough, malaise, and sore throat, and an antihistamine . . . to relieve runny nose and sneezing."

-- Dennis Drabelle

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