(This column is written by BerkOp's English columnist Jaeho Paek.)
Your body shivers, forehead burns, and nose fills up with mucus. When you catch a cold, nasty things can happen. In bad cases, some feel dizzy and have headaches, even becoming unable to deal with daily routines. No one wants to catch a cold, but if you do, you want to cure yourself as soon as possible. But then, what do people do when they catch a cold?
The most common option is medication. Antihistamines are often used to prevent runny noses. It is common sense that Acetaminophen (commonly known as Tylenol) and Ibuprofen can relieve fever. When symptoms get worse, most people (or at least most Koreans) visit the doctors’ office for prescription. Antibiotics are the most commonly prescribed and they are generally believed to be the most assuring way to recover from illness.
The question is, do any of these “cures” actually cure your body when you catch a cold? Do any of them serve your body properly so that foul pathogens are eliminated sooner and your immune system recovers faster? If you’re reading this article and thinking you know how these medications cure disease, I would be surprised. The truth is that they don’t.
This disease called “cold” is caused by a viral infection. The cold virus is present almost everywhere, and whenever your immune system weakens for some reason it infiltrates your respiratory system. Afterwards, the virus flourishes; once it enters a human cell, it inserts its own viral gene into human DNA to take control of our cells. Virus-infected cells virtually become a factory line for manufacturing new viruses that will soon infect other human cells nearby.
All of this sounds disgusting and terrifying, yet such viral infections are commonplace. In fact, countless viruses are trying to compromise the immune system of every single reader of this article at this very moment. Fortunately, our immune systems are robust enough to effectively fight these horrifying creatures that an ordinary viral infection, including the common cold, is not lethal in most cases.
There are several pieces of evidence that show your immune system strives to fight the invading virus when you catch a cold. First of all, people get runny noses because their infected respiratory systems want to wash out pathogens by producing excess mucus. For similar reasons, people sneeze to expel pathogens out of their nasal cavities. When a cell-infection is detected, neighboring cells secrete histamine to cause dilation of blood vessels nearby, allowing white blood cells to access the site of infection and fight the pathogens; this causes an increase in temperature at the site of infection, which we know as fever.
However, these natural processes of curing the disease are commonly regarded as unpleasant, and many people attempt to stop these symptoms by taking “medicine.” The pitfall of using such medication is that it lessens symptoms of the diseased state and makes one erroneously feel that he or she is recovered; actually, this so-called “medication” does disservice to the immune system by reducing those symptoms and prolonging the infection.
What’s worse than taking these symptom-relievers is using antibiotics to “cure” a common cold. Antibiotics are organic molecules that target bacteria by either hindering its growth or directly damaging life-sustaining functions. Since the development of its first kind, penicillin, by Scottish scientist and Nobel laureate Alexander Fleming in 1928, antibiotics have freed humankind from the threat of most bacterial infections. The usefulness of antibiotics as a cure for many diseases is unquestionable. Nevertheless, they are not cures for viral infections at all.
Virus is one of a kind. Unlike all other living species, including bacteria, a virus doesn't have its own metabolism. It is essentially a non-living bag of protein particles containing small pieces of nucleic acid (including DNA) that reproduces only by invading its host cells. As virus is distinct from bacteria, antibiotics cannot be the cure for a viral infection. Why, then, are antibiotics so commonly prescribed? One reason can be that physicians don’t exclude the rare possibility of a bacterial infection when they diagnose patients; indeed, certain kinds of bacterial infections can bring symptoms similar to the common cold. The other possibility is that people who can profit from antibiotics promoted antibiotics prescription.
Misuse of antibiotics not only results in a waste of medication, but also the removal of innocuous, indigenous bacteria in human organs. Once the original inhabitants are wiped out, our organs become more prone to invasion by vicious pathogenic bacteria, as they no longer have to compete against harmless bacteria for survival. The other tragedy that can be brought by antibiotics misuse is the so-called “superbug.”
When a patient is treated with an antibiotic, for example, penicillin, two things can happen: first, bacteria with no resistance to penicillin are wiped out; second, in rare cases, some bacteria that have resistance to penicillin now flourish as their competitors for survival are gone. Indeed, bacteria tend to frequently mutate to obtain resistance against multiple antibiotics and give birth to what are known as superbugs. Misusing antibiotics will serve no purpose but to bring the rage of superbugs that cannot be treated with any antibiotics available.
The rise of superbugs is recent, yet already poses a serious threat. A paper published on Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology this year reports that cases of the contagious and deadly superbugs increased five-fold in community hospitals in Southeastern U.S. from 2008 to 2012 (Thaden et al.). Once superbugs prevail, our level of medication will return back to the pre-penicillin era when a bacterial infection caused by a mere scratch on skin could bring death.
What should be done when one catches a cold? Our old wisdom already gives us the answer: stay inside, try to keep yourself warm, and drink lots of water to stay hydrated. Also, don’t avoid eating food since your immune system needs nutrition to fight pathogens. In case of a severe fever, however, a limited use of fever relief is necessary since a prolonged fever may cause irreversible damage. Antibiotics must be used only if you are sure that the infection is bacterial. Otherwise, don’t rely on medication; it is only a friendly fire against your immune system, which tries to help your body.