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(Kati Neudert/iStockphoto)
(Kati Neudert/iStockphoto)

Collected Wisdom

How long does it take for colds to take hold? Add to ...

Well, here we are in the glorious season of autumn, when the leaves turn red across the country and so do the noses of millions of sneezy and stuffed-up Canadians.

THE QUESTION

“When I get a cold, it normally starts with a sore throat,” writes Doug Caton of Victoria.

“What is the time period from when I likely introduced the virus into my body and when the symptoms first begin to appear?”

THE ANSWER

“Fifty-four hours, 15 minutes and 10 seconds,” writes Nancy Thomson of Toronto (although we don't think she really needed to narrow it down to the closest second.) “I know this from personal experience.”

On Friday, Sept. 23, she was sitting at dinner beside a friendly gentleman “who coughed, then sneezed on my cream of asparagus soup and proceeded to blow his nose, all the while chatting on and smiling broadly.

“As he was on my right-hand side, I used the excuse of looking at my watch, which I wear on my left arm, to turn away from him as graciously as possible, and handily smiled at the slightly older gentleman on my left. He winked, and thus began a new conversation. The time was exactly 8:21 p.m.”

On Monday, Sept. 26, she woke with a start.

“My throat was throbbing incessantly, as sore as any sore throat I have ever had. In fact, I felt as though someone had thrust a dagger into it, thus waking me just as the throat began to ache. I glanced at my watch to see if I should be getting up, and was happy to see that it was only 2:36 a.m.”

For a somewhat different take on the cold bug, however, we turn to Susan Baxter, a medical writer and sessional professor at the Faculty of Health Science at Simon Fraser University.

People often make the (understandable) mistake of thinking that a virus somehow “attacks” them, thus causing a cold, Prof. Baxter says.

“Actually, to use epidemiological parlance, a microbe, be it a cold virus or the TB bacterium, is a necessary but insufficient cause; it is the immunocompetence of the host organism, in this case Mr. Caton, that determines whether or not he gets that cold.”

Prof. Baxter says we live in a state of pathogenic détente with the various microbes that inhabit us – millions of them.

“Most of the time, like the bacteria in our intestinal tract, these keep us healthy. But when the host organism is stressed, fatigued, malnourished or otherwise less able to maintain that balance, the immune system reacts to the virus. It is the immune reaction that causes the sore throat, runny nose etc.”

Unfortunately, Prof. Baxter adds, in recent years, with SARS and H1N1 and so on, “we've heard so much about pandemics and potential health disasters – the metaphor used being analogous to that of an invading army – that we forget that there is a symbiotic relationship between virus and host.”

HELP WANTED

  • Why do all the cows of a grazing herd stand facing in the same direction? Jack Tennier of Toronto wants to know.
  • Electricity-generating wind turbines invariably have three blades, writes Parker Williams of Vancouver. Why? “If you think about the air passing through the disk of the turbine, there must be a very large volume of kinetic energy that passes through unharvested.” Why are there not more blades?
  • A thirsty Mark Eisenman of Toronto wonders why the drinking glasses found in most hotel rooms are so small.
  • Why is the field that is used for soccer and rugby in Britain called a “pitch”? asks Glenn Hodge of Indian River, Ont.

Let's hear from you: If you have the answer to one of these questions (or want to pose a question of your own) send an e-mail to wisdom@globeandmail.com. Please include your name, location and a daytime phone number.

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