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Cold comfort: Cure won't be soon

Finding way to stop the common cold still stumping scientists

By Tal Mekel

Different people swear by different treatments for the cold, but scientists are still looking for the cure.
Flu Season
Medical Research

(CNN) -- Although researchers are busily working on a cure for the common cold, you won't find it at the drugstore anytime soon.

The cold is a respiratory infection caused by any one of more than 200 different viruses, making the discovery of a cure or vaccine an enormous challenge.

"There are so many viruses and they change their structure all the time," says University of Michigan professor Dr. Howard Markel.

Other numbers are stacked against the scientists -- the vast amounts of particles in the air give little hope of blocking a cold virus from invading the body. With that in mind, researchers will probably focus on stopping the virus from replicating and spreading in the body, says another physician at the University of Michigan, Dr. A. Mark Fendrick.

Scientists are also looking for ways to block symptoms. When a virus infects our cells, the immune system reacts by releasing chemicals that lead to those runny noses and aching muscles.

Future therapy might lie in blocking such chemicals, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases reports.

Markel says the study of viruses has made a lot of headway, but we should not "hold our breath in the near and distant future for the common cold cure."

Impact and prevention

The cold's impact is nothing to sneeze at. The most frequent illness among Americans, it annually attacks 500 million times and costs $40 billion in doctor's bills, medication and missed work and school days, a University of Michigan study reports. According to the NIAID, some estimates put the number of colds as high as 1 billion a year.

"If you include the impact on the American employer, I think [the cold] should be given a lot more attention -- by all stakeholders," says Fendrick, who wrote the study.

Because the cold is relatively benign, the risk for drug developers of making the cure's side effects potentially worse than the disease is high, researchers say.

In the meantime, prevention is the best way to make the cold less common.

Besides getting plenty of sleep, eating well and exercising, a few precautions can limit the spread of germs from one person to another -- washing hands frequently, avoiding the touching of eyes and nose and staying away from people who are coughing and sneezing, says University of Virginia's Dr. Jack M. Gwaltney Jr.

Seeking relief

Without an available quick fix, sufferers are eager to relieve their sneezing, congestion, coughing, headache, watery eyes and/or mild fever.

The University of Michigan study found Americans spend $2.9 billion on over-the-counter cold medication, $400 million on prescription drugs and more than $1 billion on antibiotics, which should be taken only if a bacterial complication develops. Some prefer alternative remedies -- from grandma's chicken soup to vitamins and herbs. Zinc, vitamin C and the herb echinacea have gained in popularity.

"The different symptoms are your body responding, and it's not a bad thing unless you're having a cold all the time," says naturopathic physician Margot Longenecker. "We're trying to help the body ... heal itself, yet at the same time do certain things that support the immune system."

No hard evidence proves that echinacea or vitamin C can prevent colds, according to the Mayo Clinic, although some studies suggest zinc might help.

But when prevention fails, doctors say get plenty of rest and fluids, gargle saltwater and take an over-the-counter pain reliever for headache or fever.

Markel has heard about a lot of creative cures during his nearly 20 years of practicing medicine.

"I had one person who insisted on stringing a chicken neck around their neck... one that used to drink tons of grapefruit juice.... one guy who use to eat hamburgers, that was his thing."

Hamburgers might not improve your symptoms, but Markel contends chicken or any hot soup could actually help soothe those swollen membranes.

At the very least, it's comforting.

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