Thanks to our improved understanding of the human body and its interaction with various chemicals, aided by fantastic technological developments in the field of medicine, we’ve been able to overcome deadly diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, polio, and tetanus, just to name a few. However, when it comes to possibly the most common ailment among human beings on Earth, i.e. the common cold, we’re still in the dark!
Why is there no ‘common’ cure for the common cold? Well, before we get to that, it’s important to understand a few things…
What is the common cold?
In biological terms, the common cold is a viral infection that negatively impacts various components of the upper respiratory tract, including the larynx (voice box), nasal cavity and the pharynx (back of the mouth).
We all know its symptoms – a runny nose, watery eyes, sore throat, nasal congestion and lots of sneezes, sometimes all at the same time. It can also cause fever in children. In its more sinister form, the common cold (also known as Manflu) can be particularly debilitating, causing weariness and muscle pain all over the body.
The common cold is caused by a virus; in fact, there are more than 200 types of viruses that can cause the same symptoms in the human body. Out of all those types, the one responsible for almost 10-40% colds is rhinovirus, while coronavirus is responsible for about 20% of cases, and the parainfluenza virus and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) virus are responsible for about 10% of colds.
Why is there no cure for the common cold?
The reason is simple; the number of viruses that cause the common cold are simply too great to be treated by a medicine. You see, even the rhinovirus – the culprit virus in most cases of the common cold – has many different ‘strains’ (a strain is a subtype of a microorganism), not to mention hundreds of other varieties of viruses. Curing the common cold with a single medicine would require the medicine to fight an array of viruses that cause similar symptoms. From a purely biological standpoint, these symptoms are caused when our own immune system kicks itself into action to fight off a foreign invasion (like a viral attack), resulting in a sore throat and nasal congestion.
Why is there no vaccine for the common cold?
It’s well known that there are multiple strains of the flu circulating in a given geographical area that cause people to catch colds. With that in mind, why don’t we develop some sort of vaccination that could protect against the type of strains running rampant in a given area during a given period of time?
Again, the problem lies in the wide variety of viruses that cause the common cold. According to Yury A. Bochkov, an associate scientist in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, there are 20-30 different types of rhinovirus circulating in a region each season. The next season, however, only one-tenth of those strains show up again. Therefore, by the time we collect information, do scientific research and develop a vaccine against a certain group of prevalent strains, the vaccine would have already become ineffective.
As if the sheer number of causal viruses was not enough, they also mutate rapidly to assume different profiles, making it extremely difficult for medical researchers to formulate an all-encompassing vaccine to cure the common cold.
Since the common cold is considered more of an annoyance than a life-threatening situation, popping a pill or two to alleviate the symptoms is often enough for you to forget about the darned ailment and get on with your day!