What Is A Head Cold
( the common cold ),
and How Do You Fight It?

Curing the common cold is not going to happen, but there are things you can do, so first let's look at how head colds work and why a cure is unlikely. Then we'll look at how you can fight a head cold with heat.


Rampaging Viruses

A head cold is a viral infection that takes hold in your upper respiratory passages, making them swell and sting. The swelling is actually your body's reaction to the attack.

Viruses inject themselves into the cells of your nasal passages and begin using the contents of each cell to make more of themselves. That's basically what happens in any viral infection, but this one happens to live in your nose (and throat and eyes). The general type of virus that does this is called a rhinovirus (from 'rhin', the Greek word for 'nose'), because it is adapted to attack the membranes inside your nose and around your eyes.

As the common cold virus replicates itself inside a cell, it uses up the cell's innards, killing it. When the cell is packed with virus copies, all wanting to get out and reproduce, it bursts, releasing the hordes of cloned virus into the surrounding spaces.

The new generation of viruses (that just busted out of the consumed cell) invades any neighboring cells, repeating the consuming and bursting, and so on. The common cold has begun!

The Battle of the Head Cold Begins

Your body fights back with fever and the usual mechanisms of the immune response, as the system figures out how to recognize and how to fight the new invader and begins killing viruses.

All the action raises the temperature, so that's your fever. All the cells that are damaged by the invaders and by the progress of the battle cause the release of a lot of histamine in the general area. The histamine causes the swelling of the membranes inside your nose - blocking breathing - and around your eyes, making them burn and itch and shed tears and possibly be over-sensitive to light.

The irritated nasal and throat tissues generate a lot more mucus than normal (which also bungs up the passages and drips down your throat) and trigger reactions like coughing and sneezing in an attempt to blow the dirty mucus (filled with old dead cells) out of the passages. The only people who like the common cold are pharmaceutical companies.

All of the blockage and irritation makes you breathe through your mouth, which - aside from looking dumb - causes your lips to dry and crack, and your tongue to get dry and furry and your breath to go bad. It also blocks most of your sense of smell, which is most of your sense of taste.

Sleepless Nights

Along with everything else, it makes sleeping more difficult, which lowers your resistance to invading disease organisms... like the common cold rhinovirus that is already attacking you, but also some other opportunistic critters like bacteria that can invade your weakened lungs and cause pneumonia or bronchitis. Overall, it's no fun.

Obviously, the best approach is to prevent a head cold before it can start.

But that's not always possible.

After about a week or so, the body has gotten far enough in learning the current enemy and deploying defenses against it, that the tide has turned and the viral infection is crushed.

Before long, your immune system gets the current strain of common cold rhinovirus under control, and your symptoms go away. Your nasty head cold is pretty much over, and your body (especially your nose, eyes and throat) return to pretty-much normal by the time ten days have elapsed. You might still be a little down, but by comparison with the first seven days of the infection, it feels so much better, that effectively you are cured.

Now, YOUR body has figured out the current version of the common cold invader. There might be a brief resurgence a few days later, lasting two or three days, but it's much milder than the original cold and is readily contained by your riled-up defences, so it's usually passed off as either a hang-over from the original cold or as a new cold that doesn't get off the ground.

There might even be a third little attempt that lasts perhaps a day and is barely noticeable.

That common cold will never bother you again.

BUT while you were wheezing and hacking and sneezing and constantly rubbing at your nose and eyes and trying to honk (blow your nose) enough to breathe for a few minutes, now and then, you were also spreading the virus to people around you, thus ensuring that the virus continues to thrive.

Rise of the Mutant common cold

Along the way, in your body, or in somebody else's, some copies of the virus were not quite true. They were close enough that they could still thrive alongside the ones that attacked you, but they were subtly different.

If that mis-copy happened to replicate to a significant extent inside your body, then you might have noticed it as a cold that seemed a bit more vicious and tenacious than usual. The result for everybody else is that now there is a slightly new/different strain of the particular brand of rhinovirus that originally hit you.

It might or might not end up being more effective than its parent, but it's different and therefore not recognized by people's pre-coded defenses.

That is mainly why scientists haven't been able to create a head-cold vaccine. At any given time, they could make a vaccine against a current snapshot of the common cold strain that some people are suffering, but by the time they got it developed and ready to deploy, there'd already be another slightly-variant strain - or three or four - that the vaccine would not protect against.

Given that the common cold rhino viruses seem to so easily march in and take over your nose, in their ever-changing personas, as they infect you with the flavor-of-the-month common cold, it's a good thing that they seem to prefer just the area around the nose, mouth, throat and eyes.

One thing that scientists have discovered is that this preference seems exist because the rhinoviruses have evolved to thrive in an environment that is warm and moist (the mucus membranes in our upper airways), but not quite as warm as the core of our bodies. Because the nose hangs out in front of the face, and because it's always got air bathing it inside and out (each time you inhale), the nose and its immediately connected neighbors, the eyes and throat, are a little cooler than the tissues farther inside our bodies. So, the common cold viruses thrive near the entry, but don't do so well in the main body of the body, so to speak.

What can you do about the attack of a new-to-you head cold rhinovirus? Of course, you can treat the symptoms, though there are trade-offs. Or you can attack it and perhaps route it. That's not guaranteed to work, but here are a couple of things:

Be aware that head colds are due to viruses (not "virii"; that's an etymological myth...) and not due to bacteria. See the public-health reason why you don't take antibiotics for a cold.


Quick Links to all our common-cold-related pages

Here's the handy selection of our common cold / head-cold related pages on this Men's Health Tips (MHT) site:

The MHT pageWhat the page is about

Common-cold intro (this page)

The introductory page for this section about colds.

Virus versus Bacteria

What's the difference and why is it important to you

Misusing antibiotics


How you can be part of the problem, and make bacteria antibiotic resistant - create your own superbug


Prevent the Common Cold


Here are some things that should help prevent colds before you get them.


Fight/treat a cold


Here are some things that should help with colds after you get them.

If this page wasn't where you wanted to be, then from this "common cold" page, go back to the home page.

PLEASE be aware that by using this site you agree to our Terms and Conditions. Go head - learn what it's like to be treated like a common criminal - read our dry and witless Terms and Conditions . We promise it won't be much worse than a doctor visit. Promise.

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