THOSE SIX COMFORTING WORDS – A Tribute to the Rhinovirus

September 1, 2009

Written and illustrated by Alisa Singer(ChattahBox) — Facemasks, pandemic, vaccines, anti-bacterial hand sanitizers … it wasn’t always like this. As the country braces for the arrival of another fall flu season, and the unwelcome possibility of confronting an evolved and more virulent version of swine flu, I am called back to a kinder gentler time, and a kinder gentler virus – one that kept us company for many a cold winter day and that, like the polar bear and the other 12,258 endangered species, is now being threatened with extinction. It appears that researchers have hunted down and decoded the genomes for the 99 strains of the rhinovirus (DBA “the common cold”) and have developed a catalog of its vulnerabilities. “We are now quite certain that we see the Achilles’ heel, and that a very effective treatment for the common cold is at hand,” said Stephen B. Liggett, co-author of research published earlier this year in Science magazine and reported in The New York Times.
Strangely, my own reaction to this news is far from triumphant.  More sad than anything else.  It hardly seems like a fair fight. First the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry unleashed its broad-ranging arsenal of preventive tactics such as zinc tablets, megadoses of Vitamin C, and numerous herbal remedies like Echinacea, all intended to scare the poor guy off and make him feel unwelcome.  (I don’t know about you but I felt like cheering for the intrepid little bug that somehow persevered through the slings and arrows of all those boosted immune systems.)  And then there were the shelves and shelves of medicines to reduce the “discomfort” of cold symptoms, e.g., antihistamines, decongestants, cough syrups, nasal sprays, lozenges, drops, etc., drugs for mild fever and pain relief, and drugs that combine pain relief with treatment of every kind of symptom imaginable. Many generations of pharmacists’ kids were put through college by the abundance and variety of these cold remedies, and still the hardy little germ survived. But now the brainy bio-geneticists have focused their weapons of genetic identification on the prosaic rhinovirus and are preparing to attack him and his 98 brothers and sisters at their weakest points.  I ask you, can such an array of force really be justified against such a measly foe as the common cold?

I mean, don’t you find it ironic that among the various forms of flu sponsored by our friends of the animal kingdom (birds, pigs…) the big scary rhino’s virus turns out to be the wimpiest? (Indulge me on this please – I do understand that colds aren’t actually acquired from rhinos, but I’ve always enjoyed the image of a rhinoceros wrapped up in a huge afghan (that would be the blanket, not the dog), noisily snuffling away while cradling a box of tissues the size of a third grader.)

For myself, I have many pleasant and nostalgic associations with the familiar ailment. For one thing, there are bittersweet memories of miserable, sniveling children looking gratefully into my eyes at 3:00 in the morning as I rub Vicks VapoRub into their feverish, convulsing chests.  And I have always been intrigued with the idea of “catching” a cold, as though it takes some special skill, some degree of agility or hand-eye coordination.  And what other disease do you “catch”?  You don’t catch cancer or heart disease. Even highly communicable viruses like AIDS, or Ebola aren’t “caught”.  You “contract” those, but nobody “contracts” a case of the common cold.  Why is that?

I think it’s because the cold is really, after all, a rather affable little micro-organism.  Even the name, the “common cold”, is friendly and unassuming, a modest kind of disease for everyday common folk.  Also its symptoms are rather more picturesque than alarming – a “scratchy throat”, a “runny nose”, and what could be more adorable than a sneeze? And as far as illnesses go, a cold is relatively harmless. Like Peeves, the poltergeist in Harry Potter, a cold will cause a bit of mischief but never make you very sick.  Not so sick, anyway, that you can’t really enjoy a day home from work or school, snuggled up in bed with a little tea and sympathy, watching cartoons, soaps and  (if you’re a kid) highly inappropriate daytime talk shows. And you’re completely absolved from guilt because your boss and your teachers want you to stay home. You are, after all, in a highly contagious state.

And what a comforting illness the common cold is.  Just think of those six heartening words: “Don’t worry, it’s only a cold”.  Something that you know will never kill you and will be over in a few days. What happens after this innocuous disease has been eradicated forever?  What other diagnosis will provide such consolation, such relief?  “Don’t worry, it’s only …” what  –  pneumonia? rheumatic fever?  tuberculosis? Not so reassuring.

It’s worth asking why our society feels the need to strive to eliminate even the most harmless imperfections of our bodies.  We get pimples, we get wrinkles, we get cavities, we get colds.  So what? It’s all about being human and having human-like “foibles”.  And what’s so appealing about a future race of people with smooth skin and perfect teeth that doesn’t remember how to sneeze.
I wonder if we will live to see the day that the Kleenex box goes the way of the iron lung and our children’s children turn to their mothers and ask, “Mommy, what’s a booger?”  I hope that day is a long way off.  For now I am cheered by the fact that, despite everything modern science has offered up in the last quarter century, doctors are still providing us with pretty much the same medical advice for treating a cold as we got from them way back when we were kids.  That is, besides Kleenex and cartoons, bedrest and chicken soup. (A good bowl of chicken soup beats a box of Kleenex any day.)  I’m just hoping that the scientists will stay busy developing vaccines for H1N1 and whatever turns out to be the next germ the animal kingdom offers up (ferret flu?).  Then, maybe, they’ll leave the poor rhinovirus and its genomes alone.  I would miss those daytime talk shows.

About the Author: Alisa Singer has written and published humorous essays which have appeared in a broad variety of print and online newspapers and magazines across the country and in Canada. She is also the author of the book I Still Wanna Be A…, and has exhibited her paintings in various galleries across the country. She is a practicing corporate lawyer, wife and mother. Contact:

Illustration: by Alisa Singer


One Response to “THOSE SIX COMFORTING WORDS – A Tribute to the Rhinovirus”

  1. Que on November 24th, 2009 7:40 pm

    cute and funny story

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