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The Most Common Illness: A Review and Case Study from Harvard Medical School

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Harvard Medical Student Review Vol. 2 (Issue 1), pp. 5-18.
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Article
The Most Common Illness: A Review and Case Study from Harvard Medical School
J Bradley Segal1,*
1 Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115, USA
*Correspondence: JBradley_Segal@hms.harvard.edu
Case Study
In August and September of 2014, there was an outbreak
of an acute respiratory infection (ARI) among the first
and second year students at Harvard Medical School and
Harvard School of Dental Medicine. Out of 400
students, 74% (296) completed an anonymous
retrospective survey concerning their recent health. Of
the respondents, 34% of second year (57 of 167) and 25%
of first year (33 of 129) students reported experiencing
an acute illness over the preceding month. 94% (278 of
296) of the recently ill students reported experiencing
one or several ARI symptoms, including nasal
congestion, cough, sore throat, and nasal discharge.
Incidence data were compiled from self-reported dates of
when respondents first began feeling ill (Figure 1).
Behaviors Associated with Infection
The survey also asked respondents five questions
concerning recent social behaviors. Relative risks of
becoming ill were calculated for these dichotomous
behavioral variables, both as a complete cohort and after
stratifying the respondents based on class year (Table 1).
Among both classes, the only two risk factors found to
be significantly associated with becoming ill were
recently going to a party or bar with classmates (RR
1.45, 95% CI 1.000 to 2.104, p = 0.0497) and frequently
or always studying with classmates (RR 1.48, 95% CI
1.010 to 2.188, p = 0.0444). None of the other behaviors
queried significantly altered the risk of contracting an
acute illness.
Infectiousness
Kermack and McKendrick’s compartmental
epidemiological model was used to calculate the basic
reproduction number R0 for the outbreak under the
assumption that ill medical students were infected by
their classmates (Kermack and McKendrick, 1991). For
the combined classes, R0 was calculated to be 3.5,
indicating that the average ill student infected 3.5 of his
or her classmates. By way of comparison, estimated R0
for other infectious diseases include 2.7 for the 1918
A/H1N1 influenza pandemic (Mills et al., 2004), 1.5 for
the 2009 H1N1 pandemic (Yang et al., 2009; Fraser et
al, 2009), 3.6 for the 2003 SARS outbreak (Wallinga and
Teunis, 2004), and 1.732.02 for the 2014 Ebola virus
epidemic (WHO Ebola Response Team, 2014).
Behavioral Model of Disease Transmission
The probability of illness transmission is proportional to
the product of the number of contact events sufficient
for transmission between individuals and the per-event
likelihood of transmission. Kermack and McKendrick’s
compartmental model treats populations as homogenous
and combines these two factors into a single parameter
that represents the transmission rate across the
population. This approach is useful for large populations
where following individual interactions are impractical
or when no information on social network structure is
available. While this model can predict the total number
of individuals who will be ill at a given time, it neither
gives any information on how illnesses are dispersed
among subsets of the population norprovides the
opportunity to use behavioral data to predict
transmission.
This study had both a small population and limited
behavioral data. These allowed for the construction of a
discrete-time Markov model of disease transmission
through the class, wherein probability of a transmission
event between any pair of students was proportional to
the behavioral similarity of the pair. Ideally, such a
behavioral model has the advantages of allowing a better
prediction of the spread of disease prospectively and an
understanding of the specific social interactions that
promote disease transmission retrospectively.
Unfortunately, in the current study, the model informed
Synopsis: The average adult experiences two to five common colds each year. Summed up, people spend more
than a year of life suffering from the illness. This article presents a brief report from an outbreak at Harvard
Medical School followed by a review of what is currently known about the common cold. An emphasis is
placed on illustrative experiments. Despite decades of research, hand washing remains the best method for
preventing infection.
Harvard Medical Student Review Vol. 2 (Issue 1), pp. 5-18.
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Figure 1. Incidence from Outbreak at Harvard Medical School
Among the 296 respondents to a retrospective survey, 90 students (30%) reported symptoms of an acute illness over a month-long period.
34% of second-year (57 of 167) and 25% of first-year (33 of 129) medical and dental students reported experiencing an acute illness over
the previous month.
Table 1. The Relative Risks of Contracting an Acute Illness from Various Dichotomous Behaviors
Data were calculated from anonymous surveys to medical and dental students, and relative risks calculated for first- and second-year
classes, as well as in total. Among both classes, going to a bar or party with classmates in the last week and studying with classmates
some or all of the time significantly increased the risk of contracting the illness. For both classes, living in the medical school dorm,
spending more than 30 min a day in the medical education building, or regularly attending lecture did not significantly alter the risk of
becoming ill.
Harvard Medical Student Review Vol. 2 (Issue 1), pp. 5-18.
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by social behavior did not predict the spread of illness
any better than Kermack and McKendrick’s
compartmental model. This is likely because the
behavioral survey lacked the granularity to adequately
capture pairwise social interactions. The behavioral
variance calculated from survey responses was small
across the population, and students who reported similar
behaviors may not have preferentially interacted with
one another. In future studies, capturing data more
descriptive of pairwise interactionsfor example, via
construction of a social network wherein network
distances are taken to be the probability of interaction
sufficient for transmissionmay allow this method to be
used to build an informative model of disease spread in
a small population.
Other Considerations
The magnitude of this outbreak was larger than would
be expected based on prior studies of ARI’s among small
communities in relative isolation (Warshauer et al.,
1989; Flynn et al., 1977). The identification of a
pathogen is not required to diagnose the common cold,
but it is possible that the pathogens responsible for this
outbreak were heterogeneous in nature (Heikkinen and
Jarvinen, 2003). While informal studies such as this
may intuitively seem as if they can inform medical
students who wish to avoid catching a cold during the
school year, classic and contemporary research has
unraveled more profound insights into common cold
pathogenesis, transmission, and prevention
Introduction
How Common is the Cold?
Cohorts of medical students have or likely will
experience occasions when a mysterious ARI rapidly
sweeps through their flu-vaccinated class. The common
cold is a mild ARI characterized by some combination of
malaise, rhinorrhea (nasal discharge), nasal congestion,
headache, cough, sneezing, sore throat, and low-grade
fever (Jackson et al., 1958). While the cold is
unfortunately considered “low yield” for USMLE Step 1
purposes, respiratory infections are the most common
cause of illness in industrialized countries (Denny, 1995)
and are likely the most common cause of illness
worldwide (Papadopoulos, 1999). Adults have two to five
colds per year, totaling in a lifetime to over a year spent
with the disease (Papadopoulos, 1999; Johnston et al.,
1996). Twenty-five million patients in the US visit the
doctor with an ARI chief complaint every year, resulting
in $726 million spent on unnecessary antibiotic
prescriptions (Gonzales et al., 2001). One study found
that 76% of elderly patients with viral common colds
were prescribed antibiotics (Nicholson et al., 1996). The
500 million domestic cases of non-influenza ARI’s
directly cost the US healthcare system $17 billion
annually (Fendrick et al., 2003). By comparison,
influenza has a direct medical cost of $10.4 billion
annually (Molinari et al., 2007). The cold is a significant
source of lost productivity as well (Molinari et al., 2007),
causing adults in the US to miss 20 million days of work
annually (Adams et al., 1996), with indirect costs of
$22.5 billion (Fendrick et al., 2003).
Relevance to Doctors in Training
Given the absence of effective treatments or means of
diagnosis, the common cold remains pertinent to
medical students because unintentionally transmitting
an ARI to any of several vulnerable patient populations
with whom medical students interact can significantly
raise a patient’s risk of death (Meibalane et al., 1977;
Strausbaugh et al., 2003; Malavaud et al., 2001;
Horcajada et al., 2003; Dolan et al., 2012). Infection
with the cold can cause asthma and chronic obstructive
pulmonary disease (COPD) exacerbation, frequently
leading to hospitalization (Nicholson et al., 1993; Mallia
et al., 2011; Teichtahl et al., 1997). For
immunocompromised individuals, the cold can mean
serious complications and possibly death (Ghosh et al.,
1999). Even among elderly patients, a cold lasts twice as
long, has more severe symptoms, and has double the
risk of a lower airway complication such as pneumonia
(Nicholson et al., 1996, 1997).
Despite the prevalence and economic impact of the
disease, the common cold is not proportionally
emphasized in medical education. An understanding of
the cold is needed to refrain from prescribing patient’s
unindicted antibiotics, and, in lieu of effective
treatments, medical providers should know the proven
preventative measures. By understanding the
fundamental features of common cold transmission,
medical students can significantly lower the chances that
they spread the infection (Jefferson et al., 2011). Such an
understanding will contextualize asthmatic and COPD
patients who present in the emergency room short of
breath following an otherwise-harmless cold (Teichtahl
et al., 1997). By learning about the cold, a prudent
student can also minimize his or her own productivity
lost to illness as well. Finally, insights into mankind’s
most common infection can help one understand and
contextualize more malicious infectious diseases.
Causes
Viral Distribution
The common cold does not have a single cause. Rather,
the cold is caused by a host of viruses with strikingly
diverse phylogenetics (Figure 2). Across all age groups,
the most common cause of the cold is the rhinovirus,
accounting for around half of common cold infections
(Monto and Sullivan, 1993). The rhinovirus displays
season-dependent transmission, and during its peak in
autumn, the pathogen causes up to 80% of colds (Arruda
Harvard Medical Student Review Vol. 2 (Issue 1), pp. 5-18.
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et al., 1997). Together the coronaviruses, respiratory
syncytial viruses (RSVs), and parainfluenza viruses,
adenoviruses and enteroviruses account for around 35%
of colds (Fendrick et al., 2003). Influenza viruses cause
around 5%15% of colds. Because the common cold is
defined on the basis of its clinical presentation, a mild
influenza infection can accurately be diagnosed as a
cold, meaning that the two infections are not completely
distinct disease entities (Heikkinen and Jarvinen, 2003).
It is suspected that yet-unidentified viruses explain the
remaining 20%30% of the cases of the cold. For
example human metapneumovirus has a worldwide
distribution but was only discovered in children with
the cold in 2001 (van den Hoogen et al., 2001).
Rhinovirus and ICAM-1
As rhinovirus is the most frequent cause of the common
cold (Monto and Sullivan, 1993), the pathogen will be
the primary focus of this review The rhinovirus infects
epithelial cells of the nasopharynx. Viral particles gain
access to the epithelium by the mouth or nose or from
eyes via the lacrimal duct (Hendley, 1999). The eyes and
nose are the most common routes of inoculation
(Hendley et al., 1973). It is known neither how the
rhinovirus gains direct access to cells within the nasal
mucosa nor if the rhinovirus can infiltrate an intact
mucosal membrane (Winther, 2011). 90% of rhinovirus
serotypes enter epithelial cells in the nasopharynx after
binding the surface protein ICAM-1 (Greve et al., 1989).
This receptor is selectively expressed by certain
epithelial cells, with a high concentration among non-
ciliated epithelial cells of the nasopharyngeal tonsil
(adenoid) (Teichtahl et al., 1997). Successful rhinovirus
infection leads to an upregulation of ICAM-1 and
downregulation of an endogenous decoy ICAM-1,
thereby enhancing the viruses’ infectivity (Whiteman et
al., 2003). Rhinovirus can spread from a simple ARI and
infect epithelial cells in the lower airway as well
(Papadopoulos et al., 2000). Subsets of epithelial cells in
the lower airway also express ICAM-1, though at a lower
density than in the upper airway (Mosser et al., 2002).
The optimal temperature for rhinovirus replication is
33°C35°C (Hayden, 2004). In healthy adults, the
nasopharynx temperature is usually 34°C (Keck et al.,
2000). Despite being deeper in the body, areas of the
lower respiratory tract fall within rhinoviruses’
replication range as well. For example, the carina is
33.2°C during normal breathing (Hayden, 2004). Among
infants, rhinovirus is the second most common cause of
pneumonia and bronchiolitis, largely due to its ability to
infect the lower airway (Hayden, 2004).
ICAM-1, Asthma, and Clinical Symptoms
Epithelial ICAM-1 expression is upregulated following
inflammation and mediates subsequent neutrophil
migration (Vejlsgaard et al., 1989; Smith et al., 1988). As
asthma is a disease characterized in part by bronchial
inflammation, patients with asthma tend to have basally
elevated ICAM-1 expression levels in the lower airways
(Wegner et al., 1990). This potentially explains the
strong association between cold infections and acute
asthma exacerbations. Rhinovirus infections in asthma
patients are known to cause morbidity and sometimes
mortality (Johnston et al., 1996). It is estimated that
between 50%80% of asthmatic exacerbations are caused
by the cold (Johnston et al., 1995, 1996). One study
found that 37% of patients who required hospitalization
for an acute asthma attack had a viral ARI (Teichtahl et
al., 1997). Hospital admission is for asthma patients the
strongest predictor of 12-month mortality (Crane et al.,
1992). A laboratory infection of 13 non-asthmatic
volunteers with COPD showed that rhinovirus infection
leads to COPD exacerbation and lower respiratory
symptoms, though the role of ICAM-1 in these patients
is less clear (Mallia et al., 2011).
Interestingly, 25% of patients infected with a cold-
associated virus remain clinically asymptomatic
(Gwaltney and Hayden, 1992). Adults are more likely to
remain asymptomatic during an infection than children
(Peltola et al., 2008). Children also have more severe
colds. Among children, 70% have colds that last at least
10 days (Pappas et al., 2008), as opposed to only 20% of
adults (Gwaltney et al., 1967). It has been proposed that
acquired immunity and variations in ICAM-1 expression
with age may explain why some individuals have active
Caused by Each Type of Virus
The cold is caused by a diverse arrangement of viruses.
Approximately one out of four common colds have an unknown
cause, and there are likely still undiscovered viral pathogens (van
den Hoogen et al., 2001). The numbers shown above change
throughout the year as most of the viruses associated with the
common cold display seasonality. For example in the autumn, the
100 serotypes of the rhinovirus can cause up to 80% of common
colds (Arruda et al., 1997). Data adapted from Heikkinen and
Jarvinen (2003).
Harvard Medical Student Review Vol. 2 (Issue 1), pp. 5-18.
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viral infections but remain asymptomatic (Peltola et al.,
2008). One study found that polymorphisms of ICAM-1
were associated with varying susceptibility to common
cold illnesses (Nieters et al., 2001). However, common
cold cases in this study were self-reported, and it is
unclear if individuals with “protective” ICAM-1
genotypes were more likely to resist initial infection of
epithelial cells or if infected individuals were more
likely to remain asymptomatic. Still, ICAM-1 remains a
promising target for future research aimed at preventing
rhinovirus infection.
Symptoms
Clinical Presentation
Because of the variation in clinical symptoms that
patients with a common cold experience, it has not been
possible to develop a pathognomic characterization of
the disease (Eccles, 2005). Diagnosis is made clinically
from reported symptoms with good reliability
(Heikkinen and Jarvinen, 2003). Nine out of ten
patients who diagnose themselves with the cold are
found to have an identifiable virus (Arruda et al., 1997).
Experimentally, there are eight classic symptoms of the
cold: sneezing, malaise, headache, chilliness, nasal
discharge, nasal obstruction, cough, and sore throat
(Jackson et al., 1958). Not all of these are present in
every patient with a cold, and a physical exam may
sometimes reveal conjunctiva injection (bloodshot eyes)
and pharyngeal erythema
(http://www.uptodate.com/contents/the-common-cold-in-adults-
diagnosis-and-clinical-features).
Time Course of Symptom Progression
Clinical symptoms tend to occur at overlapping but
consistent time points during the course of an illness
(Figure 3). Though incubation period depends to a large
extent on the type of virus causing the cold (Bradburne
et al., 1967), patients usually begin experiencing their
first symptoms 2472 hr after exposure (Heikkinen and
Jarvinen, 2003). Classically, patients experience a sore
throat 1 to 2 days after exposure, and the percent of
patients experiencing a sore throat quickly dissipates
after day 2 (Tyrrell et al., 1993). Patients then experience
nasal discharge and obstruction between days 2 and 5,
which gives way to cough by about day 6 post-exposure
(Jackson et al., 1958; Tyrrell et al., 1993). On average,
symptoms in healthy adults tend to spontaneously
resolve after 710 days, with the cough generally being
the last symptom to resolve (Heikkinen and Jarvinen,
2003).
In contrast, symptoms in elderly patients can take twice
as long to resolve (median 16 days), and the risk of lower
airway involvement is doubled (Nicholson et al., 1996).
Children have the cold for longer as well, with most
cases lasting at least 10 days (Pappas et al., 2008).
Children also tend to have slightly different
symptomatic progression than adults. One study found
88% of children with the cold experienced nasal
congestion and 75% nasal discharge on day 3 of illness
which is similar but more prevalent than in adultsbut
with cough peaking earlier on day 2 and remaining in
half of children through day 8 of illness (Pappas et al.,
2008).
Pathogen Identification
When narrowing down a differential diagnosis, the cold
can be distinguished from similar illnesses on a clinical
basis. Simple rhinitis will not present with a sore throat
or cough, and bacterial tonsillitis will not present with a
runny nose or nasal obstruction
(http://www.uptodate.com/contents/the-common-cold-in-adults-
diagnosis-and-clinical-features). The cold rarely presents with
a high fever, the presence of which along with cold-like
symptoms is suggestive of the flu. During periods of
high flu activity, the CDC recommends that patients
with this clinical presentation be rapidly triaged to
minimize potential influenza exposure to healthcare
workers and other patients
(http://www.cdc.gov/flu/professionals/infectioncontrol/healthcares
ettings.htm). Pertussis may initially present as a common
cold would, but coughing will persist for more than 2
weeks, and there may also be apnea or vomiting present
(http://www.uptodate.com/contents/the-common-cold-in-adults-
diagnosis-and-clinical-features).
Both the common cold and acute bacterial rhinosinusitis
can present with purulent nasal discharge (thick,
colored) (Wald et al., 1991). Sputum color is indicative of
an inflammatory response but not of any specific
pathogen (Eccles, 2005). Hence when clinically assessing
an ARI, sputum color is a poor prognostic tool for
determining whether antibiotics ought to be prescribed
(Murray et al., 2000). Antibiotic treatment is indicated
when a clinical diagnosis of acute bacterial
rhinosinusitis is made on the basis of severe maxillary
pain in the face or teeth, particularly if the pain is
unilateral, and fever, or rhinosinusitis symptoms and
maxillary pain lasting more than 7 days (Hickner et al.,
2001). However the majority of acute rhinosinusitis cases
that last fewer than 7 days will resolve spontaneously,
and antibiotics ought to be withheld (Hickner et al.,
2001).
While the cold-associated viruses can be individually
identified using PCR assays, because the infection is
typically benign and self-limiting, such identification is
not medically indicated. Each family of viruses has
slight variations in its presentation and pathogenesis.
For example, one study found that 40% of patients with
PCR-confirmed rhinovirus infections initially presented
with a sore throat, but only 25% of rhinovirus-negative
patients had this initial presentation (Arruda et al.,
1997). However, accurately differentiating the common
Harvard Medical Student Review Vol. 2 (Issue 1), pp. 5-18.
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cold-associated viruses on a clinical basis alone is not
possible (Nicholson et al., 1997; Arruda et al., 1997;
Kirkpatrick, 1996).
Pathogenesis
Role of the Immune Response
The rhinoviruses do not directly cause observable
damage to host tissue (Winther et al., 1984a, 1986). The
only observable change under histology is an increased
number of polymorphonuclear leukocytes in the nasal
mucosa following infection (Winther et al., 1984b).
Because epithelial cells are left unscathed, it is believed
that cold symptoms are caused completely or to a
significant extent by an immune response and are not a
direct result of viral pathogenesis (Hendley, 1999). The
immune response, mediated by signaling molecules
released directly or indirection from infected epithelial
cells, results in bradykinin release, which is associated
with increased vascular permeability of the venous
sinuses, thereby causing the cold’s hallmark symptoms
of nasal discharge and congestion (Proud et al., 1990).
Applying bradykinin in the noses of healthy volunteers
mimics these symptoms of the cold (Proud et al., 1988)
and occurs in a dose-dependent fashion (Doyle et al.,
1990). A handful of other pro-inflammatory cytokines
and chemokines explain the other common cold
symptoms such as sneezing, headache, fever, and
malaise (Kirchberger et al., 2007). The culpability of the
immune response in causing the common cold
symptoms have earned it the nickname the, “cytokine
disease” (Kirchberger et al., 2007).
Because the inflammatory response to the cold causes
infected epithelial cells to undergo apoptosis and
subsequent extrusion, it has been proposed that the
immune response limits local viral spread (Winther,
2011). Hence, a therapeutic intervention that restricts
the immune response for the purposes of symptom
suppression may theoretically exacerbate an infection or
prolong viral shedding
(http://www.uptodate.com/contents/epidemiology-
clinical-manifestations-and-pathogenesis-of-rhinovirus-
infections). However, this remains incompletely
understoodfor unknown reasons, application of nitric
oxide both tapers the immune response to a cold and
results in faster rhinovirus clearance (Proud, 2005). This
Figure 3. Clinical Symptoms of the Cold Tend to Change over the Course of the Illness
The symptoms of the cold tend to present and resolve in a predictable pattern. Often an ill-defined headache and malaise are the first symptoms
patients notice. Most patients experience a sore throat by day 2 post-exposure. This gives way to nasal discharge and nasal obstruction. A cough
is usually the last symptom to appear and often persists past the resolution of the other symptoms to around day 7 to 10 post-exposure (data not
shown; Heikkinen and Jarvinen, 2003). Diagnostically this information has limited utility because the exact clinical course differs for every
patient (Kirkpatrick, 1996). Results adapted from Jackson et al. (1958).
Harvard Medical Student Review Vol. 2 (Issue 1), pp. 5-18.
11
is an area of research that may yield new therapeutic
targets for common cold treatment.
The Cold in Immunocompromised Patients
Studies of the common cold among patients with
impaired immune systems allude to the complexity of
the immune system’s role in rhinovirus infection. In one
study of 22 severely myelosuppressed,
immunocompromised adults who contracted rhinovirus,
33% of the patients developed a fatal pneumonia at an
average of 12 days after the onset of cold symptoms
(Ghosh et al., 1999). A more recent study found similar
rates of rhinovirus pneumonia among
immunosuppressed patients (Jacobs et al., 2013). While
60% of these patients also had a bacterial, viral or fungal
co-infection, rhinovirus was the sole detectable pathogen
in 40% of the patients with pneumonia (Jacobs et al.,
2013). In a study of the first 100 days after hematopoietic
cell transplantation, immunosuppressed patients did
become symptomatic following rhinovirus or coronavirus
infection (Milano et al., 2010). Of these, around 15% of
patients continued to shed virus for 3 months or more,
but 13% of patients had detectable viral particles and
never reported developing clinical symptoms. Another
small prospective surveillance study following
hematopoietic cell transplantation found that pediatric
patients with a rhinovirus infection were more likely to
remain asymptomatic and shed viral particles then
develop clinical symptoms (Srinivasan et al., 2013). Two
patients in this study asymptomatically shed rhinovirus
for 14 and 34 days before developing symptoms. Another
study found that among immunosuppressed adult lung
transplant recipients, higher rhinovirus titer was
associated with clinical symptoms of the cold, while
patients with lower viral loads had clinical symptoms far
less frequently (Gerna et al., 2009).
There are limited data on common cold infections
among immunocompromised individuals, but the
available studies demonstrate that an intact immune
system is required to minimize the risk of morbidity and
mortality from the cold. Interestingly,
immunocompromised patients can still show the signs
and symptoms characteristic of an immune response to a
cold infection. These patients may not be any more
likely to remain asymptomatic than healthy adults with
active rhinovirus infections (Gwaltney and Hayden,
1992; Peltola et al., 2008), but in some
immunocompromised individuals there is a prolonged
latent asymptotic phase before the patients mount an
immune response. It can also take months for these
patients to successfully extinguish a cold infection.
Transmission
Hand Contact and Fomites
The classic means by which the cold is transmitted is
self-inoculation from a healthy individual’s own
fingertips (Hendley et al., 1973). Usually a person will
contaminate his or her fingers and spread the virus by
touching his or her own eyes or nose, which gives the
virus access to the nasal mucosa (see “Causes” above).
Cold viruses find their way onto hands from either
direct contact with someone actively shedding the
virussuch as a handshakeor indirectly from contact
with an infected environmental surface. A study using
PCR in hotel rooms found that ill individuals shed viral
particles on 33%60% of commonly touched fomites like
door handles, TV remotes, and light switches (Winther
et al., 2007). Rhinoviruses can survive on environmental
surfaces for several hours (Gwaltney et al., 1982). Even
though viral titer drops by an order of magnitude when
a droplet containing active virus dries out, viral traces
that are undetectable via tissue culture can still cause an
infection (Winther, 2011).
One study in a pediatric ward found that wearing plastic
goggles that covered the eyes and nose when holding
infants with an ARI decreased infections by 43% among
infants and 34% among healthcare workers (Gala et al.,
1986). Another study found that 0 of 14 adult
participants seated near but physically separated from
infants with RSVs became ill, 4 of 10 adults who
touched the infants became ill, and 5 of 7 adults who
held and played with the infants fell ill (Hall et al.,
1981). These results reinforce the conclusion that when
caring for someone with the cold, preventing self-
inoculation from hand-eye or hand-nose contact is
essential for avoiding infection of oneself and others.
Saliva
Saliva is a poor conduit for viral transmission90% of
people with a cold have undetectable levels of virus in
their mouth (Kirkpatrick, 1996). Infection that results
from kissing a person with the cold is considered a rare
occurrence, likely because of the low titer of virus in
saliva and because inoculation of pharyngeal mucosa
rarely causes infection (Hendley et al., 1973; D’Alessio et
al., 1976).
Aerosolized Droplets
Infections caused by aerosolized droplets have been
documented, but this is not considered a significant
route of transmission (Winther, 2011). Many studies
have demonstrated that touching a person with the cold
leads to infection far more frequently than physical
proximity to a sick individual alone. It has been
proposed that perhaps the recirculation of air may
increase the chances of cold transmission by raising the
Harvard Medical Student Review Vol. 2 (Issue 1), pp. 5-18.
12
risk of exposure to aerosolized droplets. To test this
hypothesis, researchers compared the incidence of colds
1-week post-airplane flight for 1,100 travelers. Half the
passengers flew on planes that recirculated cabin air and
the other half flew on planes with fresh air ventilation.
The researchers found the recirculation of air in the
context of commercial flights had no significant effect
on cold transmission (Zitter et al., 2002). However, it
should be noted that this finding is at odds with data
from military barracks, where living in a closed-
ventilation barracks was found to raise the relative risk
of catching a ARI by 1.5 (95% CI 1.46 1.56) (Brundage
et al., 1988).
Viral Shedding and Contagiousness
Viral shedding peaks 4872 hr after infection (Hendley
and Gwaltney, 2004). In one study, 24 married couples
were monitored after a spouse was inoculated with
rhinovirus. The researchers found that the risk factors
for successful pathogen transmission were high viral
load, moderate symptoms, and time spent with spouse
(D’Alessio et al., 1976). This finding indicated that viral
spread depends on peak viral load coinciding with the
presence of only mild symptoms. Hence, most
transmissions of the cold tend to occur within the first 5
days after exposure. Even though symptoms usually
taper off after 57 days, viral shedding continues for up
to 2 weeks after infection, meaning a recently ill person
can still unknowingly spread the cold (Winther et al.,
1986).
Prevention
Vaccination
Several distinct families of viruses cause the cold (Monto
and Sullivan, 1993). Even among the most common
cause of the cold, the rhinovirus, there are over 100
virus serotypes, thus far thwarting vaccination efforts
(Heikkinen and Jarvinen, 2003). Targeted therapies
might still be possible, since many pathogeneses share
common pathways. For example, upregulating a decoy
form of ICAM-1—the surface protein that 90% of
rhinoviruses use to gain entry into epithelial cells
decreases rhinovirus infectivity in vitro (Whiteman et
al., 2003). The recent discovery of conserved motifs
among broad serotypes of rhinovirus may also
potentially yield targets for drug development (Poland
and Barry, 2009; Palmenberg et al., 2009). Non-vaccine
strategies have been the primary area of research in cold
prevention research.
Pharmaceutical Prophylaxis
Importation into a household by school-aged children is
a common route of cold transmission to adults (Monto
and Sullivan, 1993). Hence, one preventative strategy is
to take aggressive measures that stop the infection of
family members when one member of a household
catches the cold.
Prophylactic pharmaceutical agents demonstrated to
prevent cold infections exist, but these still carry
unpalatable side effects. For example in one study,
whenever a participant developed a cold, his or her
family would begin a 7-day prophylactic course of
intranasal interferon (Douglas et al., 1986). The
treatment reduced ARI illnesses among family members
by 41%, but each course of treatment had around a 12%
risk of intranasal bleeding. Intranasal interferon was
particularly efficacious for rhinovirus infections,
decreasing infections by 86%. However, it is not possible
to clinically determine if a cold is caused by rhinovirus
as opposed to another viral pathogen, limiting the utility
of the observed efficacy (Nicholson et al., 1997 ;Arruda
et al., 1997; Kirkpatrick, 1996). Additionally, interferon
use led to a concerning leukocyte accumulation in the
mucosa (Hayden et al., 1987). Other antiviral
chemotherapies (e.g., ICAM-1 blocker, capsid binding
agents, and protease inhibitors) have similarly failed to
show a promising risk to benefit ratio (Winther, 2011).
Weather and Isolation
Contrary to popular belief, there is no demonstrated
association between being in cold weather and common
cold susceptibility. Newcomers and long-time workers at
a remote research base in Antarctica were found to be
equally susceptible to catching the cold (Warshauer et
al., 1989). While a medical school class’ isolation might
seem protective, another Antarctica study of ARI’s
during a period of absolute isolation found that a
respiratory infection present at the beginning of
isolation persisted throughout the 6 months of winter
isolation (Flynn et al., 1977).
Vitamin C
Another popular means of cold prevention, vitamin C
supplementation, was examined in a meta-analysis of 29
trials (Hemila and Chalker, 2013). Together the studies
include 10,708 participants from the general public and
show vitamin C supplementation does not decrease
common cold incidence, either when taken regularly or
in large prophylactic doses (RR 0.97, 95% CI 0.94 to
1.00) (Hemila and Chalker, 2013). Because vitamin C
does not reduce cold incidence in the general public, the
authors suggested that routine vitamin C
supplementation “is not justified.” While regular
supplementation of vitamin C was associated with an 8%
reduction of symptom duration in adults and 14%
reduction in children, given the wide variation of cold
presentations (Monto and Sullivan, 1993), it is possible
that this statistical finding is entirely sub-clinical and is
not relevant for a population-wide recommendation.
Additionally, it was found that mega-doses of vitamin C
Harvard Medical Student Review Vol. 2 (Issue 1), pp. 5-18.
13
after the onset of clinical symptoms had no effect on
illness duration or symptom intensity.
Curiously, five studies of 598 extreme athletes under
conditions of intense but brief physical stress
individuals at a ski camp (Ritzel, 1961), runners in an
ultra-marathon (Peters et al., 1993), etc.receive a clear
and consistently positive benefit from vitamin C
supplementation (Hemila and Chalker, 2013). For
example, in one study half of the Canadian military
recruits taking part in arctic training exercises were
given a daily placebo and the other half were given daily
vitamin C (Sabiston and Radomski, 1974). To minimize
bias, the supplemented group was only revealed to both
participants and researchers at the end of the study
through the measurement of intravenous ascorbate
levels. Among 112 men, 25% taking the placebo and only
10% receiving vitamin C caught the cold. The five
studies show that vitamin C supplementation under
conditions of acute physical stress cuts the incidence of
cold infections by half (RR 0.48, 95% CI 0.35 to 0.64)
(Hemila and Chalker, 2013). Two other randomized
controlled trials found that individuals under conditions
of prolonged physical stressmarine recruits at boot
camp and competitive adolescent swimmersreceived no
benefit from vitamin C in terms of cold prevention (Pitt
and Costrini, 1979; Constantini et al., 2011). This
perhaps indicates that the supplementation with vitamin
C has a substantial benefit, but only under conditions of
acute physical stress (Hemila and Chalker, 2013).
Hence, aside for a narrow subset of
extreme athletes, vitamin C has no
demonstrated therapeutic benefit. Yet,
even if it will not help treat or prevent
the cold, especially given the low risk
and cost of vitamin C, supplementation
does not hurt.
Surgical Masks
While masks can prevent cold
transmission in hospital wards
especially when they prevent self-
inoculation by covering the eyes and
nose (Gala et al., 1986)surgical masks
have not yet been demonstrated to be
effective in more general contexts. One
prospective study found that wearing a
surgical mask has no effect on
likelihood of catching a cold, but it did
significantly make a mask-wearing
participant more likely to experience
headaches (Jacobs et al., 2009). Yet it is
worth noting that this 77-day study
with 32 participants was underpowered
and would only have detected an
absolute risk reduction of 60% from
wearing a mask. Unfortunately, other
drastic or novel approaches have not yet shown great
promise either (Jefferson et al., 2011). For example, use
of tissue paper with virucidal properties did not
effectively reduce the frequency of colds (Farr et al.,
1988).
Social Networks
Contemporary studies into the social component of
disease transmission have utilized quirky features of
social networks to successfully prevent the spread of
infectious diseases and computer viruses. For example,
the targeted vaccination of “central” individuals who
have the most connections in a social network can raise
population immunity (Pastor-Satorras and Vespignani,
2002; Cohen et al., 2003). Because central individuals
have more connections in a social network, they are
likely to spread a disease to more people and become
infected earlier in an outbreak. Another feature of social
networks is the so-called “friendship paradox,” which is
the observation that your friends have more friends than
you door that your friends are likely more central than
you are. Researchers used this during a flu outbreak at
Harvard College and found that if random volunteers
nominated a friend, because that friend was more likely
to be a central individualand hence more likely to get
sick earlier in an outbreakmonitoring the nominated,
central friends for signs of the flu significantly improved
early flu detection (Figure 4) (Christakis and Fowler,
2010). At this time, however, a study utilizing social
Figure 4. Early Infection of Central Individuals in an Outbreak
Your friends tend to be more centrally located in social networks than you are. Hence in the
conditions of social spreading, “central” individuals in a social network pick up infections
earlier than random individuals. Researchers were able to use this feature of social networks
in real-time to detect an influenza outbreak significantly earlier than traditional
surveillance methods (Christakis and Fowler, 2010). Theoretical results adapted from
Christakis and Fowler (2010).
Harvard Medical Student Review Vol. 2 (Issue 1), pp. 5-18.
14
network structure for early detection or prevention has
not been attempted for the common cold.
Hand WashingThe Punch Line
What do we have to prevent the cold, then? The answer
can be gleaned from a classic experiment in 1980 in
which one group of random volunteers dipped their
fingers in dilute iodine solutionit was known to have
virucidal properties (Hendley et al., 1978)and were
compared to volunteers who dipped their hands into
water that was died to look and smell like iodine
(Gwaltney et al., 1980). Immediately after drying their
hands, volunteers made hand contact with rhinovirus-
positive donors who had just picked their noses (“The
donors contaminated their hands with nasal secretions
by finger-to-nose contact”), and 15 min later, volunteers
touched their own eyes and noses. This was repeated for
3 days. None of the eight iodine-exposed volunteers
became infected, while all seven controls became ill (p <
0.001). Unfortunately, routine iodine use is impractical
given that many patients do like having iodine-stained
hands.
Subsequent randomized controlled trials demonstrated
that good hand hygiene leads to a 20% decrease in cold
incidence (Carabin et al., 1999; Ladegaard and Stage,
1999). One crossover study found that giving children
hand-sanitizer to compliment normal hand washing
resulted in a 50% decline in ARI incidence (Dyer et al.,
2000). A meta-analysis of 67 studies on preventing ARI
transmission concurred hygienic measures are the most
effective measure to prevent ARI infection (Jefferson et
al., 2011).
Conclusion
As discussed throughout this review, many of the most
illustrative studies of the common cold rely on despotic
study protocols. Some studies leveraged drastic
geographical conditionsat Antarctic research bases and
military exercises on the Northern frontierto study the
cold in isolation (Warshauer et al., 1989; Flynn et al.,
1977; Sabiston and Radomski, 1974). Other researchers
intentionally infected healthy volunteers with the cold,
ranging from the infection of married people to study
risk factors associated with transmission (D’Alessio et
al., 1976) to infecting COPD patients simply to prove
that the cold causes COPD exacerbation (Mallia et al.,
2011). Such measures were not utilized for the purposes
of the brief case study of the outbreak at Harvard
Medical School. Good-hearted volunteers and the self-
limited nature of the cold have made it possible for
researchers to illuminate the pathogenesis,
transmissions, and prevention of mankind’s most
common ailment.
The case study from Harvard Medical School revealed
two risk factors significantly associated with contracting
an ARI. However, the gross social patterns of behavior
elucidated in the study did not capture unique social
interactions with the granularity needed to prospectively
predict the spread of disease or retrospectively describe
the specific social interactions that tended to promote
disease transmission. Disease transmission in social
networks is an unexplored area of research in common
cold transmission, and the methods discussed above
have implications for preventing and detecting outbreaks
among small semi-isolated communities such as
universities, hospital wards, military bases, and
retirement communities. Such prevention efforts are
especially important given that in this outbreak ill
students each infected 3.5 of their colleagues.
Thus far, good hand hygiene is the best method of
preventing common cold transmission, especially when
around children (Jefferson et al., 2011). A survey of the
literature supports this intuitive conclusionself-
inoculation from one’s fingers through the eyes or nose
is the most frequent means by which the cold is
transmitted (Hendley et al., 1973). Saliva and aerosolized
droplets rarely cause infections (Winther, 2011;
Kirkpatrick, 1996; D’Alessio et al., 1976). Yet infectious
viral particles can persist on hands and commonly used
fomites for hours (Winther et al., 2007; Gwaltney et al.,
1982). Peak viral shedding coincides with early cold
symptoms such as rhinorrhea (Jackson et al., 1958;
Hendley and Gwaltney, 2004). Cold symptoms are
completely attributable to our immune response
(Hendley, 1999). Children tend to have more colds per
year than adults (Pappas et al., 2008) and are frequently
responsible for exposing family members to the
numerous cold pathogens (Monto and Sullivan, 1993).
Annually, the cold accrues more direct medical costs
than influenza and is the number one reason for missed
work and school (Fendrick et al., 2003; Molinari et al.,
2007). There are no effective treatments for the cold
(http://www.uptodate.com/contents/the-common-cold-in-
adults-treatment-and-prevention). This makes prevention
especially important for vulnerable populations such as
asthmatic, COPD, elderly, and immunocompromised
patients (Nicholson et al., 1996; Mallia et al., 2011;
Teichtahl et al., 1997; Ghosh et al., 1999). Alas, as a
prevention strategy, hand washing is almost
disappointingly simple. But given hand washing’s safety
(consider nose bleeds from intranasal interferon)
(Douglas et al., 1986; Hayden et al., 1987), ease (consider
surgical masks in public) (Jacobs et al., 2009), and
efficacy (consider vitamin C) (Hemila and Chalker,
2013), perhaps a simple solution is not a bad thing for
such a common problem.
Acknowledgments
The author would like to thank Annie Morgan for
essential help with data analysis for the case study at
Harvard Medical School, and extends aHi nother warm
thank you to the HMSR staff for their patience with this
Harvard Medical Student Review Vol. 2 (Issue 1), pp. 5-18.
15
manuscript. The author has no conflicts of interest to
disclose.
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... It has been determined that up to 40%-80% of cases of colds are caused by rhinoviruses, followed by coronavirus, influenza virus, respiratory syncytial virus, parainfluenza virus, adenovirus, and enterovirus [14]. Moreover, approximately 25% of the cases of the common cold are caused by unknown viruses [15], while 5% to 15% are caused by influenza viruses [16]. It has also been shown that the kinds of viruses related to the common cold change throughout the year [14]. ...
... On average, in healthy adults, symptoms tend to spontaneously resolve after 7 to 10 days, with cough generally being the last symptom to resolve [14], [17]. High fever is rarely experienced compared with the typical symptoms of influenza [16]. ...
... Given that vaccination has no effect on preventing infection, the most common method of cold prevention in the world is handwashing [16], [3]. Alcohol hand sanitizers are effective against influenza, but not rhinoviruses [25]. ...
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