If you catch colds every year but your friend or family member always seems to escape them, you might feel pretty jealous. You may also be wondering what his or her secret is to avoiding that pesky illness. Well, recent research suggests that our likelihood of getting a cold may have something to do with how many types of “stresses” are affecting our nose and airways — and we don’t mean stress at work or at home.
The September 2018 study published in Cell Reports found that different people’s airways respond in different ways to rhinovirus, aka one of the common cold viruses. Researchers analyzed two different defense responses that people have to protect them from harmful things in the air: One response protects you from viruses such as the common cold, and the other keeps you safe from something called “oxidative stress,” which is caused by other types of irritants in the air, like pollen or cigarette smoke, according to Live Science.
In the lab, researchers found that cells in a person’s nose fought a stronger battle against viruses, while cells in the lungs packed a more powerful punch against irritants like smoke and pollen. Researchers also found evidence for a strange trade-off between these two defenses. When they exposed cells from the nose to the stress of cigarette smoke and then a virus, they observed that the cells put up a fight against the smoke but couldn’t handle the virus afterward. In other words, the defense response against things like smoke and pollen can potentially shut down the response against problems like viruses — and that’s what can put you at risk for getting a cold.
“Your airway lining protects against viruses but also other harmful substances that enter airways,” senior study author Ellen Foxman, PhD, said in a press release. “The airway does pretty well if it encounters one stressor at a time. But when there are two different stressors, there’s a trade-off. What we found is that when your airway is trying to deal with another stress type, it can adapt, but the cost is susceptibility to rhinovirus infection.”
If you want to avoid catching a cold this year, try your best to avoid any irritants in the air, especially cigarette smoke (which you probably already know you should be avoiding). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also suggests washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds at a time. For optimal protection, you should also avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands. It’s also a good idea to stay away from people who already have a cold if at all possible.
Stay healthy out there!