The days are getting shorter and it’s getting chillier outside. It’s only a matter of time before your nose starts running, you start coughing and you have a sore throat.

Your first cold of the season has arrived!

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A scanning electron miscroscope image of a rhinovirus, a type of cold virus. Wikimedia Commons

The common cold is really just a collection of symptoms caused by the reaction of your immune system to viruses. These tiny germs have a very simple structure, consisting of one or two strands of DNA (or RNA) and at least one protein, which are all covered by a protein shell. This structure is known as a virion, or virus particle.

Did You Know?
More than 100 different types of viruses can cause colds!

To infect the cells of the nasal passage, viruses must first attach to proteins (called receptors) on the surface of the cells. Once a virus attaches to the receptor, it is taken into the cell, where it produces more virus particles. The infected cell dies and ruptures, releasing the particles to infect other cells.

Did You Know?
There is no cure or vaccine for the common cold, nor is there likely to be anytime soon.

Being in contact with people that are already sick is the cause of a cold. When they sneeze or wipe their nose, the virus is spread. If you touch contaminated surfaces, like that crusty keyboard, and then touch your nose, eyes, or mouth, you can get sick too. The best way to avoid getting sick is to wash your hands - a lot.

Did You Know?
Before the discovery of viruses, Benjamin Franklin hypothesized that the common cold was transmitted through the air. His hypothesis was confirmed 150 years later.

We tend to catch colds when the weather is bad, such as when it’s raining or snowing. It’s not the weather itself, but the fact that a lot of people flock indoors, where cold viruses can be spread easily.

Did You Know?
Chicken soup really can relieve cold symptoms. Scientists have found that it has anti-inflammatory properties and can help relieve congestion by speeding up the movement of mucous through the nose.

There’s no real way to prevent a cold, except by becoming a hermit. Just keep your hand sanitizer at the ready and maybe whip up a pot of chicken soup!

Learn More!

Understanding the Common Cold

Common Cold Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, and How to Avoid Colds

Article first published on December 13, 2010.

Photo Credit: iStock

Candace Webb

I graduated from the University of Ottawa in 2006 with a PhD in Biology. I am now a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA, studying the funky circadian rhythms of plants. Besides science, I love to write, hike, paint, bike ride, and hang out at the beach.


Une diplômée de l’Université d’Ottawa, j’ai reçu mon doctorat en biologie en 2006. Je suis présentement boursière postdoctorale à l’Université de Californie à Los Angeles, où j’étudie les rythmes circadiens des plantes. En plus des sciences, j’aime écrire, passer du temps à la plage et faire de la peinture, de la randonnée et du vélo.



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