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Fighting the Cold War

The densely populated cities of the modern world provide ideal breeding grounds for common cold viruses, and few of us escape infection.

Most adults suffer two to five colds per year, and infants and pre-school children have an average of four to eight. If we take the lowest figure of two colds per year and apply this to the three million population of Wales that represents six million colds a year in Wales and 600,000 colds a year in Cardiff alone.

Fighting the Cold War

In a lifetime of 75 years we suffer from over 200 episodes of common cold.  If each cold lasts for five to seven days that means we spend around three years of our life coughing and sneezing with colds.  In fact, it is humankind’s most common disease.

For most of us they are rarely serious, but in babies and the elderly, they can lead to potentially fatal chest infections, while among the working population, there are implications for the economy in days lost through illness.

The common cold is caused by a viral infection of the nose and throat. The quest for a cure remains elusive — not least because there are more than 200 different viruses which can cause cold symptoms. Viruses are much smaller than bacteria and many scientists argue that they are not really 'alive' in the sense that they can only reproduce by hijacking the machinery of living cells, such as those lining our noses.  Some idea of the microscopic size of viruses can be visualised if you consider that 1 million viruses will fit across a one pound coin (22 millimetres) in one line.

There are several groups of viruses that cause the common cold and one of the most common is the rhinovirus or 'nose' virus. The common cold is more prevalent in cold weather than in summer but there are still plenty of colds around in summer particularly when we go on holiday.

Although the chance of getting a cold in summer is only 1 in 4 compared to winter there are some special factors that may increase the risk. Long haul jet flights appear to pose a special risk as there are no other periods when we are likely to be squeezed as tightly together with 400 potential sources of common cold infection.  Other factors include: air conditionning, stress and travel to foreign countries where we are likely to encounter new viruses.

Scientists at Cardiff University are fighting the Cold War on a different front — by overcoming those familiar symptoms of a blocked or runny nose, sneezing, headache, sore throat, coughing and fever.

Leading the battle are the scientists in the Common Cold Research Centre, in the School of Biosciences. Under the leadership of Professor Ron Eccles, the Centre is the only one of its kind in the world dedicated to research into the symptomatic relief of the common cold, influenza and hay fever.

However, the Cold War can only be won with the support of an army of volunteers — and that is one of the ways in which the Centre benefits from being based in a major British university. Young people are more prone to colds because their immunity is still developing, and a student population of more than 20,000 and a further 5,000 staff provide the Centre with a ready source of cold-sufferers to try out the various medications.

The Centre is mainly concerned with clinical trials on new medicines to treat the common cold and flu. This research is carried out by recruiting students with colds and then studying the relief of symptoms after treatment using measures such as cough counts, nasal airway resistance and subjective symptom scores in diaries. Each year the Centre recruits 2-3,000 patients with common cold for clinical trials and basic research.

Hot drinks, soups and even a spicy curry can sometimes alleviate the suffering associated with a cold — by promoting airway secretions, which can calm an inflamed throat.

However, every year, more than 1,000 members of the University community visit the Centre with cold symptoms, to take part in clinical trials. While they are waiting, they can watch videos or play computer games, as scientists continue their work to "zap" the symptoms of colds and ‘flu; but will there ever be a cure for the common cold?

Professor Ron Eccles reveals: "We already have a cure — our own immune system.  While there are some effective symptomatic treatments, there are no specific antiviral medicines or vaccines.  We are faced with the formidable problems of too many viruses; speed of treatment; rapid changes in virus; drug resistance and side-effects risks. 

"The Common Cold Centre is known world wide as a centre of excellence for clinical trials on new treatments for common cold, influenza and nasal allergy"