Jennifer Ackerman's writing experiment -- getting injected with the common cold -- was nothing to sniffle at. For three days, she was holed up in a three-star hotel so University of Virginia researchers could test a new nasal spray.
Ackerman chronicles what might have been a miserable weekend, "a hybrid of holiday, hospital, and prison," in her latest book, "Ah-Choo! The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold."
"My family thinks I've gone off the deep end," Ackerman writes. "My plan elicits this merry note from my dour sister: 'You know our family. It'll go straight to your chest.' One friend dubs it my weekend 'frolic at the rhinovirus festival.' 'Chin up!' he says. 'That way your nose won't drip.'
"Another friend takes a darker view. 'I'll keep you in my prayers: Death by cold is one of my greatest anxieties.'"
The common cold takes a $60 million annual toll on the United States: 100 million doctor visits, 1.5 million trips to the emergency room, 189 million school absences and hundreds of millions of lost work days.
Most Americans can expect up to 200 colds in their lifetimes, spending as much as five years in bed. Children can be felled a dozen times a year.
Scientists have wiped out small pox, discovered vaccines for polio and found cures for some cancers, but the crafty rhinovirus has baffled them.
Ackerman embarks on her experiment surrounded by young male students, "in cold pursuit of three free meals a day, a clean bed, and a $600 fee."
It's a random, double-blind study, which means she didn't know if she would receive the medicine touted as a cure, or just a placebo.
"It was kind of like expecting a hurricane or something," she said. "I ran around doing errands, expecting to feel lousy."
Turns out, she got a "real humdinger," that paralyzed her for two weeks.
"As a child I got really sick all the time with colds," said Ackerman, who has previously written about a day in the life of a body and heredity. "It's a mild illness that isn't insignificant in our lives."
"I got interested in the idea of why some people seem more susceptible than others," she said. "Some kids get sick all the time, and some adults, too. But some manage to escape with not many colds in a lifetime."
The cold is actually more than 200 different viruses, which is why it's hard to find a vaccine that can target all of them. Ackerman was injected with a virus called T39, which accounts for 40 percent of all colds.
Once exposed, a person is forever immune to it. That likely explains why children get more colds than adults.
Ackerman was paid $600 to participate in the study, not nearly as much as flu studies that yield $1,750 each.
On a Friday night in October, she hung her head over the side of the hotel bed while researchers put drops of T-39 in her nose.
"I imagine the little beasties getting straight to work," she writes. "The nose has virtually no protection against the virus once it is deposited on the nasal mucosa. Nearly everyone exposed to a cold virus in this direct fashion will get infected, provided they don't have antibodies."
In just a matter of minutes the virus lands in the nasopharynx, "what the 19th-century physician Sir William Osler called the 'garbage dump' of the throat, she says.
Ackerman colorfully describes the virus' path:
"There, in the soft tissue of the adenoids (aptly described as 'crypts'), the tiny invaders approach body cells a thousand times their size, like pirates in a small speedboat approaching an oil tanker. They get onboard by wily means, pretending to be something they're not. (Coast Guard? Tourists?) Cold viruses have evolved a specialized device for docking on a target host cell: little canyonlike grooves on their surface that fit perfectly with specialized receptors on the surface of your body cells (called ICAM-1 receptors). The fit is tight, like lock and key.
"Once the virus particles are docked, the sedition begins. They fool a body cell into thinking they're something useful, so the cell readily takes them in. And once they're onboard, like pirates, they take over the controls."
Author Jennifer Ackerman Gives Herself the Common Cold
If the body's immune system hasn't defeated it, the virus fools the body by releasing its genetic material into a body cell then reproducing hundreds of copies of the virus.
The first scratchy throat is actually the immune system's response to the infection, not the work of the cold. Within eight to 12 hours come the dripping nose, coughing, achy body symptoms, peaking in about 48 to 72 hours.
There may be a genetic component to who develops colds and who doesn't, says Ackerman. About 25 percent of those exposed to a cold will never get it.
Some studies have also shown that husbands and wives only transmit colds to each other 30 to 40 percent of the time.
Part of the reason is lack of financing, according to the study's lead researcher Dr. Birgit Winther, an ear, nose and throat specialist who emigrated from Denmark to Virginia.
"Over the last 30 years, there has not been any money to do cold research," she said. "It's not an attractive area."
Unlike the flu virus, which is carried in the air and infects the lungs, the cold virus enters the body through the nose.
The cold virus lives on surfaces on public transportation, doctors' offices and playground equipment.
"Flu spreads by air – you inhale it," said Winther. "If someone with the cold virus sneezes in your face, you might get it, but the majority of transmissions seem to be indirect. You catch it on your fingertips and put it in your nose."
That's right. People infect themselves.
"Be aware of what you do with your fingertips," said Winther. "Use the back of your hands or knuckles."
So far, medications do little to cure the cold, because once the symptoms begin, it's too late.
One over-the-counter product that does work, Cold-FX, is produced in Canada and is unavailable in the United States, according to Ackerman. It's active ingredient is the widely used herb ginseng.
"There is some modest evidence that it helps protect and can actually shorten the cold," she said.
And chicken soup does offer relief, clearing out the sinuses with its steamy broth. Studies have also shown the amino acids break down mucus. And the soup, if it contains vegetables, also helps reduce inflammation.
Antibacterial Soaps Don't Work on Common Cold
Some other hard, cold facts that emerge from Ackerman's book:
Cold germs are viruses, not bacteria, so antibiotics and antibacterial soaps are useless.
People with Positive Emotional Style (PES) are less likely to catch a cold, according to a 2006 study published by the journal of Psychosomatic Medicine.
Vacations can actually induce a cold in a phenomenon known as "leisure sickness."
People with diverse social networks get fewer colds than those with a small circle.
Boosting the immune system can make the cold symptoms more severe, rather than shortening or preventing the life of the virus.
Wiping down gym equipment only spreads the virus. Just wash your hands afterwards.
When Ackerman herself gets a cold, she takes the advice of Jack Gwaltney, who studied the common cold for 40 years at the University of Virginia. He sadi to take two drugs every 12 hours at the earliest sign of a cold until symptoms disappear: an anti-inflammatory drug such as ibuprofin to ease aches and pains, and an older antihistamine like Benadryl or chlor-Trimeton, which causes drowsiness and clears the runny nose.
She also mentions other ways to knock yourself out, providing recipes for a hot toddy and even a "sick-on-the-sofa" old-fashioned.
Lead researcher Winther said she can't reveal whether or not the nasal spray that Ackerman helped test has proven effective, but she hints that it is "promising."
As for the book, Winther said Ackerman "did a really good job."
"I knew she was going to write it," said Winther. "But I couldn't imagine what a good outcome it would be. It was the first really serious approach and detailed evaluation about what goes on with a cold."