I am at this moment
Deaf in the ears,
Hoarse in the throat,
Red in the nose,
Green in the gills,
Damp in the eyes,
Twitchy in the joints,
And fractious in temper
From a most intolerable
and oppressive cold.
7:58 a.m. The victim stepped into an empty elevator. Mistakenly, she pressed the "Lobby" button and then the "3" for the newsroom.
Five minutes before, the night watchman had gotten off the same elevator. On the ride down he had been singing one of his favorite arias from "The Barber of Seville" as he did every morning coming off duty when he was interrupted by . . . a sneeze.
He cursed the February weather, sneezed again, and covered his mouth with his hand. Impatient, he then punched the "Lobby" button again.
7:59 Walking down the hall to her desk, the victim pulled a windblown strand of hair from the corner of her mouth with her right thumb and index finger.
Under an ordinary laboratory microscope no one would have detected anything unusual about the air in the elevator or about the "Lobby" button or the victim's finger. Just several million drops of moisture, spewed into the air by the guard's singing and sneezing. No one would have seen the billions of infinitesimal specks of . . . white dust clinging to each drop.
When the victim caught her breath in the elevator, a quarter of a million of the moist dust-laden particles lodged in the minute hills and valleys of her nose. A second invasion was relayed be her fingers from the elevator button to her mouth and the white dust began drifting along the membrane lining toward her throat.
8:04 The victim riffled through the notes for her story. Even if she missed the deadline, she thought, at least there was the psychological advantage of being hard at work when the editor arrived.
Like undulating seaweed, the cilia - invisible and threadlike - lining the nose and throat sweep away intruders. Six hundred sweeps per minute. But the massive invasion of particles overwhelms them, and the white dust entrenches itself in the warm, marshy terrain.
10:00 Drifting randomly, several of the dust particles begin to bump into cells. The attraction is irresistible - like a biting dog closing in on a tender calf - and the particles fasten their hold on the cells.
Minute twenty-sided spheres, like geodesic domes, the particles are rhino, or "nose," viruses. If they were polio virus, which is similar except for a slight variation in the pattern of its outer shell, they would seek out nerve cells; if they were rabies they would search for the cells of the brain.
So irresistible is the attraction of the virus for these particular cells of the membrane lining that it ignores all others in favor of them. Shortly, hundreds of thousands of viral spheres have fastened tight to cells.
Feeling the tickle, perhaps, of the virus clinging to its skin, the cell puckers up, surrounds the sphere and drinks it in. (Influenza viruses, less patient, blast a hole in the cell wall.)
Having admitted a visitor to the inner sanctum, the host errs again and obligingly removes the virus's coat of armor, dissolving it with an enzyme. This unleashes its deadly essence, a harmless-looking bit of translucent jelly: viral nucleic acid.
Uncloaked, the virus is really nothing but pure potential, the genetic program needed to reproduce itself. Its single purpose - to multiply.
2:30 p.m. The virus, which carried along with it none of the machinery or materials necessary to the task of reproduction, begins to wrest control of the cell's manufacturing center. The takeover, executed as strategically as the lift-off of a spaceship, starts with the firing up of viral genes that will locate and shut down the cell's factory.
3:15 "Where's that story?" the editor says, passing the victim's desk. "I want it now, not next week."
5:59 The victim feels unusually tired and decides to risk the editor's ire. She calls it a day.
8:00 In 900,000 cells in the victim's nose, the manufacturing centers are completely shut down. A second battery or viral genes fires, directing the cell factory to begin production of viral nucleic acid.
2:34 a.m. With sufficient supplies of nucleic acid on hand, a third series of genes goes into action, switching production to materials for the armor coat.Twenty-four different types of amino acids are needed for the armor the virus will wear when it departs for the outer world.
7:00 Production of viral coating material is complete. Assembly of the young virus begins: nucleic acid at the center and around it the protein-coat molecules in their tight arrangement of triangles forming a twenty-sided sphere. The progeny - 100, perhaps, in each cell - come together naturally: it is the path of least resistance.
8:16 Twenty-four hours after entering the victim's body, the new viruses make their triumphant escape, massing toward the edge of the cells and bursting like silent fireworks through the cell walls. Fatally wounded, the cells soon die.
Within the hour, progeny from each of 900,000 cells - 90 million strong - drift toward healthy cells.
8:20 The victim clears her throat."I'm not getting a sore throat, am I?" she wonders. But after she swallows several times the sensation disappears. Still, she decides to have tea with lemon instead of her usual black coffee and tosses down two Vitamin C tablets with it. "Good preventive medicine," she remarks to the next reporter.
In the throat, the viruses faced a tougher battle. When the victim coughed, thousands had landed on her desk, and under the bright light they survived only minutes. Others washed into her stomach on floods of coffee, tea and water where they were devoured instantly by acid.
Another contingent, in their drifting, ran into trouble in the tonsils and adenoids, where it's likely to they set off an alarm in the victim's immune system. Patroling lymphocyte cells attacked and killed many of the spheres and transported others back to lymph node headquarters for scrutiny. Based on observation of the pattern of the invader's coat of armor, the immune system begins production of antibodies that will kill them.
But there were far more of the enemy than the lymphocytes could combat, and several thousand gained a hold.
Forty-eight hours after the victim inhaled the contaminated elevator air, the second generation of viral progeny - 9 billion of them - flooded into circulation. In the nose, dead cells began to accumulate by the millions and the body secreted fluid to wash them from the field. The victim noticed a slightly runny nose.
At seventy-two hours, the third generation of young viruses poured into her system. There were now close to a trillion, and for every sphere the lymphocytes managed to kill, 10,000 took its place.
That morning, the victim awoke feeling miserable. Her eyes and nose were rivers. Her head ached, the glands in her neck throbbed. Her throat was dry and sore. She shivered and called in sick. She stayed in bed, drank a half-gallon of orange juice and swallowed a handful of aspirin and Vitamin C. But the virus continued to proliferate and cell losses rose higher.
The following day, something happened. Suddenly the virus stopped infecting new cells and the body began to wash them away in hordes. But exactly what happened is a mystery. Why a cold stops short, instead of persisting for weeks or months, scientists cannot say. Not because the lowly cold virus - which causes an estimated billion colds a year in this country, and the loss of 40 million workdays - is deemed unimportant, or uninteresting. On the contrary, it is a bit too interesting.As virologists are quick to say, most of the factors involved in colds are not understood.
For one reason, the size of viruses makes things difficult. Smaller than bacteria, their very existence eluded detection for centuries after bacteria were first spotted under a microscope. Late in the nineteenth century a Russian researcher studying diseased tobacco plants discovered a substance so infinitesimal that it passed through the fine filter used to screen out bacteria, and caused disease in healthy plants.
Still no one could belieove that anythinmg so minuscule could be alive. A Dutch scientist, Martinus Beijerinck, observing the way this strange substance would disappear and then reappear in the laboratory, came to the conclusion that it might thrive only in living cells - unlike bacteria, which will grow even in cheese.
He himself found the very idea "obscure if not positively unnatural" and called it "virus" - in Latin, slimy liquid, poison, stench.
In the 1930s virus particles were first glimpsed under the electron microscope and scientists soon determined what they really are: a chemical substance, molecules of protein and nucleic acid bound together. The living-or-dead question was answered: sometimes it's alive, sometimes it isn't.
Another way of putting it: a virus is a virus.
But the chief culprit of the common cold wasn't isolated until the 1950s at the Harvard Common Cold Research Center in England. Since then a lot of money and effort have gone into prying loose its secrets.
It has been measured and weighed, taken apart and put together again. The diameter of the rhinovirus spheres, which are calculated by the twenty-five millionth of an inch, is known. It's been learned that the protective armor is so tough that the virus can survive temperatures of -200 degrees and that a force 100,000 times the force of gravity won't crush it. Scientists know, too, exactly how this remarkable armor is constructed, with only five different kinds of protein molecules, each in turn composed of strings of amino acid, coiled up like a ball of yarn.
Yet the crucial facts defy explanation. To begin with, it isn't known why there are so many different types of rhinovirus - over 100 have been identified - or how there came to be so many in the first place. And there are other viruses that cause cold-like illnesses, and some colds for which no bug can be found. (A cold, technically, involves the upper respiratory system and is accompanied by a slight, if any, fever, while influenza viruses affect the lower respiratory system and usually cause fevers.)
The very number of rhino-viruses explains why there cannot be a vaccine for colds while there is one for swine flu. Protection would require an impossibly huge vaccine cocktail of all 100 rhinoviruses. Nor can people be vaccinated for a few strains at time until an overall immunity is built up, since resistance to colds - unlike the lifelong protection developed against other diseases - lasts only a year or two.
Some of the scientists who were studying colds a few years ago have turned to other problems such as the gastrointestinal viruses that afflict infants, of which there may be fewer and better hopes for a vaccine.
Others are looking for what virologists calls "a broadly protective modality agent," otherwise known as a virus antibiotic. There are now none known for most types of viruses, including colds.
The obstacle here is the way viruses make themselves at home in the cells: essentially they become part of the cell. This means thay any anti-viral agent must be able to make the ever-so-subtle discrimination between the two.
There is some hope for a protein substance called interferon, found in small amounts in the body after a cold. Spraying interferon into the nose will protect a person against infection. But the dose required is high and interferon is difficult to produce.
Scientists have looked also into the bodily inducers of interferon. But here there's a question of toxicity, and since a cold itself isn't a serious illness (except sometimes in babies; and there is evidence that in smokers and people with lung ailments, colds may trigger more serious diseases) any "cure" must be beyond suspicion.
As for antibodies, they limit or prevent the spread of a cold, but it isn't clear that they turn off the virus. (Antibody levels have not been observed to rise significantly in the body until after a cold has peaked.)
A popular theory is that the body's rise in temperature with a cold slows down the virus, or that a fever in combination with small amounts of anitbody secreted at the infected site does the job.
Most of what is known about colds concerns how they are spread - by personal contact and via inanimate objects. Also, medical virologists have noticed that people who travel tend to catch more colds because they come across different strains of the virus, and people who have a lot of contact with others, theater managers, for example, seem to catch a lot of colds.
People who complain about catching a lot of colds in general often have some structural difficulty, clogged eustachian tubes, sinus problems, or they sleep with their mouths open, allowing the membrane linings to become dry and therefore more susceptible.
Colds and cold-like illnesses are common in winter when people huddle indoors, and in fall the increase in colds can be explained by children going back to school, catching colds and spreading them to adults.
But why aren't there more colds in summer?
That isn't clear. It may be that temperature and humidity in spring and fall, when rhinovirus infections peak, favor the virus or weaken a person's resistance, or both. Among other unknowns: how and why a cold causes a fever, and why a cold makes you feel sick. There is only a small amount of inflammation and swelling in porportion to the symptoms, and one possibility is that the symptoms are not caused by the virus itself, but by the bodys immune response to it.
Scientists have looked for all these things and not found them.
What they have found is not exactly good news:
The Word on Chills and Drafts: There's no evidence that they have anything to do with getting a cold. Well-run studies in which people sat around in wet clothing while fans blew cold air on them showed that the chilled group caught no more colds than the control group. In fact, they caught slightly fewer.
Vitamin C: The best studies show that it has no useful effect on colds. The same researchers who showed several years ago a mild effect in diminishing symptoms have since shown that it does not.
Pills and Potions: Antibiotics are useless against the common cold. Most non-prescription remedies - on which $680 million a year is spent - won't even alleviate symptoms, the FDA has reported.
Chicken Soup: As good as anything, according to Harvard expert Dr. Francis Lowell, director of an FDA study on cough and cold medicines.
Drink Lots of Fluids: It'll make you fell better, but doesn't affect the progress of the cold.
Getting Run Down: There is no scientific evidence that this is a factor.
Bed Rest: Nice if you can get it, but won't cure a cold.
Aspirin: Controversial. Cold sufferers who take aspirin excrete viruses longer than those who don't. The significance of this isn't known.
And what is the doctor's remedy for colds?
"In my line I get a lot of colds," says one doctor who specializes in colds, sounding a bit fatigued. "I treat them by doing nothing. I don't take any drugs - antihistamines make me sleepy and aspirin upsets my stomach."