13 Crazy Facts About the Common Cold

Woman with cold blowing her nose in bed

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In which we reveal how far away to stand from a sneezing sick person.

In the big picture of getting sick, the common cold doesn't seem like such a huge deal. It doesn't have the same total-knock-out punch as the flu; it isn't enduring; it usually isn't terminal. But when in the throes of a cold that has one in its grips, it offers a distinct misery that most of us would prefer to avoid.

Add to that the fact that up to a billion colds occur in the United States alone each year, causing 60 million lost days of school and 50 million lost days of work, resulting in a whopping $25 billion in lost productivity. The common cold is an uncommonly costly illness.

In addition, we spend some $5 billion on over-the-counter remedies – which means more stuff that needs to be made, packaged and shipped, and results in more waste at the end of the day. Plus, doctors prescribe antibiotics for more than 60 percent of common colds – adding to the abysmal problem of antibiotic resistance and superbugs – even though bacteria aren't responsible for the illness. Thus antibiotics are useless in most cases.

For those reasons alone – aside from the abject anguish of a gushing nose, the feeling of glass in the throat, and all the other joys of a rhinovirus – avoiding a cold should be at the top of the to-do list. So with that in mind, here's a crash course in colds to help keep the mischievous viruses at bay.

Colds By the numbers

1. Most grown-ups have two to four colds a year; children can easily get six to 10.
2. More than 200 viruses are responsible for the cold. The most common are called human rhinoviruses (HRV) and are the little jerks that cause up to 40 percent of all colds.
3. There are around 100 known serotypes of HRV, meaning that a vaccine cannot be made ... and that we have the potential to be infected around 100 times by this alone. Plus, mutations cause a thus-far eternal number of new strains of the virus
4. While a person's breath can travel 4.5 feet per second, droplets from a sneeze can travel (insert shudder here) at about 100 miles per hour.
5. Rhinoviruses survive for three hours outside of the body, and can sometimes live for up to 48 hours on touchable surfaces, including everything from doorknobs and subway poles to shopping carts and light switches.
6. A single cold virus can have 16 million offspring within a day.
7. The droplets from a sneeze can spread for a distance of six feet.
8. A single sneeze can spray 100,000 germs into the air, which is why you should keep a six-foot distance from a sneezing sick person.

Preventing Spread and Treating Colds

9. Colds are spread by touching infected surfaces and then touching your nose or eyes, and to a lesser extent, the mouth; or inhaling virus-harboring droplets in the air after an infected person sneezes or coughs.
10. People are thought to be most contagious when symptoms are at their worst, though they can also infect others even before symptoms develop.
11. The lower the humidity, the more moisture evaporates from sneeze and cough droplets, the farther the germs can travel. Dry air also dries out the mucous lining in our nasal passages, alleviating an important protective barrier. Both of these contribute to the increase in colds during cold, dry weather.
12. Vitamin C won't cure a cold. But, according to Smithsonian Magazine, taking at least 0.2 grams of vitamin C every day may decrease the duration of a cold by a day or two.
13. The single best way to avoid getting a cold, aside from becoming a hermit, is to wash your hands—a lot. Use soap and wash them in water for 20 seconds. It's cheap and easy and more effective than alcohol-based hand sanitizers, but if you don't have soap and water, sanitizers will do in a pinch (just steer clear of products that contain Triclosan).

(Sources: CDC, National Institutes of Health, Smithsonian Magazine, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, WebMD)