The common cold can be uncommonly annoying with its symptoms such as runny nose, cough and sore throat. It’s not unusual to catch a cold as many as four times a year—there are over a hundred cold-causing viruses in circulation, which are spread through water droplets in the air (when someone who is sick coughs or sneezes) and on common surfaces such as doorknobs.
Scientists have been studying cold viruses for decades, but there’s still much more to learn about these tiny bugs and how they invade our bodies. Here are five fascinating facts that have come out of some of the latest research:
1. Feeling rested may not help fight a cold, but the number of hours you sleep does.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh followed the sleep patterns of healthy adults and then infected them with a cold virus. The less a participant slept, the less likely they were to fight off the cold.
The same held true for participants who didn’t sleep through the night. But whether or not individuals felt well rested did not affect their risk of developing a cold. The scientists believe that sleep interruptions weakens the body’s natural response to infection.
2. If you hate your job, you’re more likely to catch a cold.
Two recent studies from show that grumpy employees sniffle and sneeze than their happier colleagues. When researchers surveyed Japanese workers, they found that those with the lowest levels of job satisfaction experienced the highest number of colds. In a separate study, the Department of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Korea’s Inha University Hospital found that male workers with higher job stress had more colds. (Interestingly, women in high-stress jobs didn’t show the same result.)
3. Catching a cold may be connected to childhood obesity.
Research from The University of California, San Diego School has found a possible link between childhood obesity and a virus strain called adenovirus 36 (AD36) that causes colds. A group of kids, just over half of them obese, were tested to find out if they’d ever been infected with AD36. It turned out that 78 percent of the kids who tested positive for AD36 were obese. Even among the group of obese kids, those with AD36 antibodies were an average of 35 pounds heavier than the overweight children who hadn’t been exposed. Experts stress that many factors can contribute to childhood obesity. Still, this latest discovery may one day help treat or prevent what’s becoming a serious health epidemic.
4. Scientists have finally broken the genetic code for the common cold.
A team of U.S. researchers recently finished mapping the genes of 99 different known cold viruses; up to now, the genetic makeup of many of these microbes has remained a mystery. Each one of these gene sequences is like an instruction manual or blueprint for a specific germ. Scientists hope these new blueprints can be used to predict how a virus will spread and learn the best ways to prevent infection. This genetic information could also help researchers understand the links between cold viruses and the development of other health problems such as asthma.
5. An engineered cold virus could one day fight cancer.
Molecular scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California have discovered one of the ways the cold virus manages to overrun our immune systems. Normally, our own bodies create a protein, called p53, that triggers infected or abnormal cells to self-destruct before they can be taken over by an invader. But the cold virus carries proteins of its own to stop p53 from working. Since cancer takes over healthy cells in a similar way—by deactivating p53—the researchers hope what they’ve learned will help advance cancer treatment. A specially designed cold virus that lacks the proteins to suppress p53 won’t be able to spread using healthy cells. But it should still be able to replicate inside host cells without p53—namely, cancer tumor cells, which would then burst open and be destroyed as the virus makes thousands more copies of itself.