The common cold

How it spreads, how to avoid it

Most have felt it: a sore throat, cough, congestion. 

These are all signs of the common cold, a silent but potent virus prevalent in many parts of the world throughout the year. As WebMD notes, there are more than 200 types of viruses that have the potential to cause the cold, it is virtually impossible to eradicate it through modern medicine, but that does not mean that it is not possible to protect yourself from it. 

It is first important to distinguish between the flu and the common cold. The Center for Disease Control explains that while the onset of the cold is gradual, the flu is abrupt, and while fever is typical for the flu, it is rare for the cold. 

The two are caused by different things as well. The flu is specifically caused by the influenza virus, a virus that comes in different strains every year but is more or less the same, whereas the common cold is caused by anything ranging from “the rhinovirus” to “coronavirus, respiratory syncytial virus” and many others according to WebMD.

Schools are at an especially heightened risk of transmission of the cold. Exposure is one of the main factors in the exceptionally rapid spread of the virus, and there are few places other than schools that deal with exposure at such an extreme and constant basis. Science Department Chair and Biology teacher Winnie Litten explained that there are hidden dangers all around us, especially on a school campus.

“Every doorknob you touch, you’re picking up bacteria. Every toilet you flush, every desk, every Chromebook, every stylus is loaded with bacteria,” Litten said.

Human beings have a tendency to touch: to share food with one another, to borrow or lend an item for a time, to share a hug and so on. This “physical” relationship among students and friends is likely precisely what leads to the speedy transfer of the disease from one person to another.

There are more factors, however, that make students especially prone to getting infected. AP Psychology teacher DJ Cook comments on how the amalgamation of certain factors in the body lead to susceptibility.

“Sleep deprivation, poor diet, and stress are impairments to your immune system. A combination of these would make an individual more susceptible to the flu virus or the common cold. That is why it’s not uncommon to see more cases of the flu and common colds at high schools and colleges during finals week,” Cook wrote to the Talon.

The high school environment does indeed invoke stress among both staff and students, and it is this very fact that further promotes infection. When the body is under stress, the immune system takes a backseat as the body focuses on essential systems like the circulatory system. When this happens, the number of lymphocytes, B and T cells, are reduced and the body can no longer fight potential infections as it regularly would.

Student stress is prevalent on campus. Junior Navya Batra, a member of girls’ basketball and Mock Trial, feels that there are many daily stressors associated with school.

“The high school environment stresses me out because of loads of homework and classwork … I come home from school exhausted and … I have practice or homework or a project due,” Batra wrote.

If someone has not taken adequate measures to protect themselves from the virus, it is fairly easy for the pathogen to wreak havoc on the body once it has entered it. Litten has no shortage of advice for students seeking to prevent infection due to stress.

“[What] you can probably do as students to lower your stress is not procrastinate. Get enough sleep. Eat healthy foods. Drink water. Make sure you’re well-hydrated…I would [also] wash your hands before you eat because your body is covered with bacteria,” Litten said.

The CDC and Litten are in alignment with their suggestions to promote safety. Washing your hands often with soap and water as soap kills the viruses living on hands, avoiding touching the face with unwashed hands as there are easy access points for the virus to enter the body, and minimizing contact if you are sick or if others are sick around you are just some of the things that you can do. 

Students sometimes push through the common cold and attend school anyway as missing school can be detrimental to grades. However, while being absent hurts the school because it loses funding and it can prove challenging for students to catch up, schools encourage students to stay home when they have a fever or other symptoms of contagion.

The OPHS student handbook, which all students are required to sign prior to the start of the year, explicitly states that “[i]t is important that students attend class regularly except in cases of illness or emergency.”

In the extracurricular setting, student absence can prove to be harmful to the group or team. Allan Hunt, film teacher and director of OPHS Drama productions, discloses that it can be hard to work with absent students.

“It’s like anything else that involves a group, and if the group is not complete we have to work around it. Sometimes, though, we have a chronic illness [illness that keeps students out of school for long periods of time] and then there’s a lot of people missing. That’s the tricky thing because we’re on a countdown towards opening night,” Hunt said.

Although the company is prepared with their lines and can temporarily stand-in for one another, when kids miss rehearsal, it does inevitably throw off the process. This same issue is found in choir, band and in all sports when someone misses a practice before a game and basically anything involving a team of some sort.

OPHS varsity girls’ soccer team member, junior Amanda White, offers insight into the problems that sports encounter when someone from the team is missing.

“[If] they can’t practice or play in the game, that really hurts our team because we’re relying on those players and if we don’t have them then it affects all the positioning and how the game is going to be set up,” she said.

Being sick is no fun. The information for prevention is plentiful and the science is clear, but all of these problems can be avoided by considering two simple words from Ms. Litten: “Be healthy.”