On Sept. 19, UR Medical Center Professor of Medicine and Infectious Diseases Ann Falsey published a study in the “Journal of Clinical Virology” about the factors that contribute to the common cold. The study, titled “Factors associated with symptomatic rhinovirus infection in patients with COPD,” concludes that children may be to blame.
Falsey and other researchers initially observed 127 patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) for a year. After evaluating the results, Falsey determined that the amount of exposure to young children is the deciding factor as to whether patients displayed symptoms of the human rhinoviruses (HRV) or, more commonly, the cold.
HRV may be present in people without producing any discernible manifestations, such as a runny nose or sore throat. But during winter, Falsey noticed that older patients with cardiovascular and pulmonary problems tended to display symptoms.
“Heart and lung disease are a risk factor for a cold becoming more than just a cold,” she said.
Explaining that although people generally get checked for a virus when they begin displaying signs of a cold, Falsey said that many more actually carry the virus without displaying symptoms. The latter group constitutes many young, healthy adults, who can easily fight off the virus, but also frailer populations such as those suffering from heart and lung ailments.
This conundrum prompted Falsey to ask: What defines a cold if a patient shows symptoms but does not carry the virus?
To garner information, she and her team tested subjects with respiratory diseases every two months. Subjects provided mucus and phlegm samples and disclosed details about their daily habits, including how many days per month they were in contact with varying ages of children. Most of the subjects exhibited cold symptoms, but some did not. The study revealed that exposure to schoolchildren — rather than age, race, prior medical history or any other predisposed condition — played the decisive role.
Falsey said her team’s findings “came as a bit of a surprise.” She added, “We would have thought it was the severity of the underlying lung disease.”
Even though the study did not investigate why children are central to contributing to cold symptoms, Falsey has a few hypotheses. She explained that as people age, their immune systems remember previous run-ins with viruses and learn to fend them off in future attacks. On the other hand, children are more vulnerable to succumbing to the cold because their bodies lack that kind of experience.
Another reason is that children are not as competent in concealing their secretions or practicing healthy hand hygiene.
During the course of their study, the team made the incidental discovery that patients with respiratory disease who used oxygen tanks were less likely to contract the cold.
According to Falsey, the oxygen had “a seemingly protective effect.”
Although this phenomenon may seem counterintuitive, Falsey reasoned that it may be because patients reliant on oxygen tanks have more protective children, limiting these patients’ exposure to their grandchildren. Plus, young children may be more hesitant to interact with those with oxygen tanks due to the immediate association with sickness and disease, thus limiting the exposure to the virus.
Falsey highlighted that the implications of her research are “reinforcing the value of good hand hygiene” in cold prevention.
Fagan is a member of the class of 2014.