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Home / Health & Science

Keep warm and wash your hands often to keep the sniffles at bay

HEALTH & SCIENCEBy JOY WANJA MURAYA | Sun,Jul 17 2016 14:48:15 EAT
By JOY WANJA MURAYA | Sun,Jul 17 2016 14:48:15 EAT

Many consider the cold and flu a non-issue because of its commonness. But when the coughs and sniffles come, they can literally cripple your life, rendering you weak with a runny nose, sore and itchy throat and non-stop sneezing. No doubt the cold season, which is already here with us, provides a perfect recipe for the common cold and flu to thrive in us.

And as if on cue, advances in science now show that having adequate sleep and keeping our bodies warm could keep that irritating cold away.

To validate the old wives’ tale that keeping warm will prevent colds and flu, last week Yale University scientists found that your body temperature levels can affect how your immune system responds to the virus that causes the common cold.

A cold begins when a virus attaches to the lining of the nose or throat, causing inflammation and production of mucus. It will mostly go away after seven to 10 days, with a recurrence during the year, earning it the name common cold. Unfortunately, the common cold is yet to have a cure.

Two hundred types

Scientists estimate that there about 200 types of the cold virus variant and that upholding personal hygiene habits like having air circulate freely and frequent hand washing have been found to keep one away from the doctor’s consultation room and the pharmacist’s drug-filled table-top.

A sneeze can hold about 100,000 virus-containing droplets — around 3.5 metres into the air. Each of these viruses have a lifespan of at least 48 hours. Stubborn, they can rest on a surface like a desk for two days, waiting to be picked up by someone with a weak immune system.

Using mathematical models to support the premise, Lead Scientist Akiko Iwasaki, linking cool weather conditions to the common cold discovered that when infected cells are placed below normal body temperatures, the cold virus replicates immediately, but when the affected cells are placed under normal core body temperatures, the cold virus dies off faster and is unable to replicate.

“Most strains of rhinovirus (RV), the common cold virus replicate better at cool temperatures found in the nasal cavity (33–35°C) than at lung temperature (37°C), proving that temperature has profound effects on antiviral defence that affect the outcome of common cold infections,” says Iwasaki, a Professor of Immunobiology at Yale School of Medicine. Excerpts of the study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences show that the temperature can impact the immune response to the virus, determining whether a common cold will thrive or not.

The team identifies the nasal cavity as the site where the virus replication takes place, increasing the effect of the cold and flu of the infected person.

The group advises that this can be achieved by the individual warming the nasal cavity or body to respond to your virus. “Wrap a scarf around your nose, or wear a mask and try to limit your time out in the cold,” she says.

Closer home, Ear, Nose and Throat Specialist Mbira Gikonyo cites using soap whenever you wash hands as a key strategy to keeping colds at bay. Dressing warmly early in the morning and evening and avoiding windy conditions also helps keep the cold at bay.

Symptoms of the common cold include sneezing, a running or blocked nose, and watery eyes. As the severity increases, a sore throat, fever and muscle aches may set in, calling for urgent medical attention as an advanced cold infection could proceed to the lungs, sinuses and/or ears.

According to Dr Gikonyo, the commonest transmission of the virus is by droplets in the air from infected persons, contact with nasal secretions or infected surfaces and hand to hand transmission in handshakes and other personal contact. “Avoid touching your mouth, nose or eyes with unclean hands. Also avoid shaking hands because this encourages the spread of the viruses responsible for cold and flu infection,” Dr Gikonyo says.

If left untreated, Dr Gikonyo warns that besides a blocked nose, a common cold could lead to headaches, coughs, sinus and ear infections, bronchitis and even pneumonia. Interestingly, there is no specific treatment for the common cold, although there are treatments that can relieve symptoms.

Body temperatures

“A drug that shrinks the swollen membranes in the nose, making it easier for a person to breathe. Those that treat allergies are effective in opening up the nose and sinuses as well as reducing secretions from the nose. They are normally given to relieve common cold effects,” he says, adding that analgesic medications known as NSAIDS can relieve the pain and swelling associated with severe colds and flu.

He further notes that nasal sprays with steroids also work well for nasal blockage and sinus infections. He however warns of the dangers of over reliance on cough syrups in children below two years of age, advising that the medicine be reserved for older children and adults. Why are children more vulnerable to colds? Dr Gikonyo attributes it to an underdeveloped and weaker immune system. “Children are also poor at controlling their body temperatures, and alongside the weaker immunity, this makes the common viruses more infectious within a child,” Dr Gikonyo says.

Dr Gikonyo discourages parents and guardians from buying over-the-counter drugs.

“Many of the cold and cough mixtures given to children contain ingredients that can affect a child’s breathing, causing high heart rates, convulsions and severe drowsiness,” he says.

Often, they neither improve the symptoms nor shorten the duration for which the child has a cold; thus in many countries cough mixtures and anti-flu syrups are not allowed in children less than two years of age. Prevention is the ideal,” he says.

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