Catching a Cold is More Complex that You Might Think

Catching a Cold is More Complex that You Might Think:
You Don't Tend to Catch it in Class or at Home

For many years, Advanced Pediatrics has viewed the spread of viruses more like wind rather than a handshake.  The wind idea proposes that viral epidemics sweep across communities and continents, offering no real ability to stop the spread.  The handshake idea is more comforting, it states that if we only avoid shaking hands with everyone we know is sick, the virus will not spread.

On January 31, 2011, one of the nation's top scientific journals published a study that took a close look at just how one virus, the H1N1 influenza virus, spread in a small Pennsylvania community.

On February 4, 2011 the New York Times reported on this study. 

The study looked at 370 children in 295 households and their 899 contacts outside of school and home.  The investigators tracked the flow of infection from child-to-child, child-to-adult, and adult-to-adult.  Today's common sense would demand that if you get sick, it is far more likely to be from the person sitting next to you in class or from a family member, than otherwise.

As with much common sense, the facts often prove otherwise when someone takes the time to look at what actually happens.

Here is what they found:  
  • Kids are more likely to catch the flu from playmates than classmates.  Looking at fourth-graders, boys were much more likely to catch it from boys and girls from girls, even if a boy and girl sat next to each other.
  • Adults were more likely to catch the flu from someone outside the home than their own children.
  • Closing the school during the height of the flu epidemic had no impact at all on the spread of flu.
These three observations are strong proof that our usual ideas on stopping the spread of virus are no more than wishful thinking, and turn out to be nearly useless.  Keeping your child home from school when sick, closing schools when viral epidemics flare, worrying about catching the virus from someone you live with, each have very little to do with how you or your child will most likely catch their next virus.

If one takes a look at the big picture, this all makes perfect sense.  Just consider the influenza virus.  It infects no one on the planet during the summer.  But in the winter nearly every village and city is soaking in the virus.  This means that the influenza virus sweeps across continents, infecting all in its path every December and just as dramatically disappears from every nation by the end of April.  If that is what is actually taking place, how could closing a school stop the flow of this global viral storm?  As the study published proves, closing a school turns out to make no difference at all.  Not a surprise if one keeps in mind that viral epidemics are like global weather events, they sweep through our lives like a storm, and staying home or going out has little impact on the flow and exposure.

This more informed perspective also ends the dearly held belief that if a child in a family has a cold, and then someone else gets sick, that first child had to be the source.  When an actual epidemic was tracked, it was found that adults were more likely to get infected from someone outside their home than their sick child.

If the facts are so clear and fit with the global movement of virus, why are we all so sure that we can control the spread of viruses?  I think it is a deep-seated need for some comfort.  After all, the image of a global wind of illness is not very comforting.  It is far more reassuring to think of what Aunt Rose used to tell us- wash your hands, stay home if you are sick, cover your face when you cough, that school should close with everyone getting sick there.  After all, if Aunt Rose is right, then maybe, just maybe we could do something to stop our loved ones from getting sick.  Not a bad hope, and what a powerful desire.  When desires are that strong, beliefs that suggest they could come true are not easily set aside.

But, if we really are ever to defeat viruses, we can only hope to do so if we approach the challenge with the actual facts.

So next time colds and flus strike your school or home, keep in mind the virus most likely came from outside your school or home.  It is unfortunate that we cannot control the sweep of virus, but it does keep us from blaming those we love for getting us and others we love sick.

Dr. Arthur Lavin

*Disclaimer* The comments contained in this electronic source of information do not constitute and are not designed to imply that they constitute any form of individual medical advice. The information provided is purely for informational purposes only and not relevant to any person's particular medical condition or situation. If you have any medical concerns about yourself or your family please contact your physician immediately. In order to provide our patients the best uninfluenced information that science has to offer,we do not accept samples of drugs, advertising tchotchkes, money, food, or any item from outside vendors.

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