Do you have a wad of damp tissues in your pocket? Is your nose red and raw? Have you already sneezed at least a million times today? It doesn't take a doctor to figure out that you have a cold.
You're not alone. Winter is prime time for colds, and school-age children are likely to catch the nasty things often. Kids in nursery school may catch as many as 12 colds a year. Older kids seem to fight off colds a little better than that; they get between six and nine colds a year. Even the healthiest kids may catch more than 100 colds by the time they're 18!
Colds are caused by viruses -- tiny invisible germs. Scientists have identified more than 200 different types of cold germs. All that variety means that if you catch one kind of cold, you can still catch another version of the virus after you get over the first one.
How do you catch colds? Many experts think that most colds are passed by skin-to-skin contact. For example, if you have a cold, get some of the germs on your hands and then touch someone else, they get exposed to your virus. When that person touches his mouth, eyes or nose, he can spread the virus into his system.
But can cold germs also pass through the air? Under the supervision of a scientific researcher, students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison played several games of poker to find out. Some of the participants in poker for the sake of science who played in the 12-hour-long card games were healthy. Others had sniffling, sneezing colds.
During one of the games, healthy players wore special collars designed to keep them from passing germs they might pick up on their hands to their eyes, noses or mouths. Five of them got colds anyway. The cold germs must have reached the players through the air.
At another game, healthy players used poker chips, cards and pencils that had been handled by the players who had colds. But they didn't play in the same room with the sneezing, sniffling, poker players. After that game, the healthy players stayed healthy. The germs on the cards and chips had not infected them with colds.
What did the poker games teach Elliot Dick, the physician and biologist who conducted the experiments? He decided that airborne particles dispersed by sneezes and sniffles must play an important role in spreading colds. Most cold germs, Dr. Dick concluded, pass through the air rather than on the surfaces of things cold sufferers have touched.
Dr. Dick's research suggests that it's pretty hard to avoid getting colds -- especially when you're cooped up at school with a bunch of sneezing, sniffling classmates. Colds are no fun. But a healthy body can usually bounce back from a cold within a week. What happens to your cold depends more on exactly what kind of virus you picked up than it does on what you do once you've caught it. The severity of your cold also depends on how healthy you are to begin with.
If your mom comes home from the office with a cold, she may say, "Don't kiss me! I've got a terrible cold . . ." But more research conducted by Dr. Elliot Dick suggests that you're safe getting kissed by someone with a cold virus. Dr. Dick had volunteers with colds kiss healthy volunteers without colds. Only a very small percentage of the healthy kissers caught colds. The explanation: Few cold viruses survive in human saliva.
When you catch a cold, there are some things you can do to feel better as you wait for the sickness to run its course. Drink lots of extra liquids. Fruit drinks are healthy and taste good. Chicken soup is good, too -- just like your grandmother said. A study done at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York showed that the old-fashioned remedy really is helpful, probably because inhaling the vapor from the hot broth helps clear stuffy noses.
Rest up, too. Heavy exercise isn't a good idea when you have a cold. Give your body a break. And if your runny, stuffy nose, coughing, sneezing and sore throat stick around for more than a week, or if you get a fever, have your parents call the doctor. You might have strep throat, bronchitis or even pneumonia -- and those illnesses need professional medical attention.Tips for Parents
Children often complain of body aches and headaches when they have colds. However, young cold sufferers should not be given aspirin for colds, flu or other viral infections, because of the danger of Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal liver or brain condition. Small amounts of acetaminophen can help relieve symptoms safely; ask your pediatrician about the proper dosage for your youngster. In "Child Care, Parent Care" (Doubleday, $17.95), a health guide published this winter, Drs. Marilyn Heins and Anne M. Seiden suggest calling your children's doctor if the following symptoms accompany their colds:
A high fever over 103 degrees Fahrenheit.
Refusal to take liquids.
Pulling at the ear.
Catherine O'Neill is a free-lance children's writer based in Baltimore.