What Causes the Common Cold?

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Design by Daniel Peterschmidt


Science Friday airs on WSQX Fridays 2-4 p.m.


The common cold is an unwelcome yet familiar visitor this time of year. But how much do we really know about it? The term “common cold” is actually a catch-all for several different families of viruses that give us cold-like symptoms. The most common type is a small RNA virus called a rhinovirus, made up of just 10 genes. Researchers think it most likely originated as an enterovirus, a virus most commonly found in the low pH environment of the human gut, that mutated and developed an affinity for the comfy moist confines of the nose and throat.

So what about the elusive “cure” for the common cold? Even if researchers could develop a vaccine for the three species of rhinovirus that cause the majority of colds, we could still be susceptible to one of the other families of viruses, including the coronavirus, the type of virus responsible for Middle East Respiratory System or MERS, and which originated in camels.

Fred Adler, a professor of mathematics and biology at the University of Utah, explains what we know about the history of the human rhinovirus. And Jeff Bender, a professor of public health at the University of Minnesota, clarifies the viral relationship between humans and animals, including whether it’s possible to exchange colds with your pets.

Segment Guests:
Diane Pappas is a professor of Pediatrics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Akiko Iwasaki is a professor of Immunobiology at the Yale Medical School in New Haven, Connecticut

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