Bubbeleh, Have a Little Nosh 

I've got a cold and my roommate told me to stop eating. He says it's common knowledge to starve a cold. I say that's the dumbest idea I've ever heard. Should I really fast to get rid of my cold?

- Rylan

You can't really fault him for repeating an old wives' tale. He's probably just trying to help. That is, unless he blew his entire student loan on a new iPod nano and now needs to plunder your food to get through the week. It's also possible he's just extra cautious about health, but I wouldn't worry about that until he starts wearing a Michael Jackson surgical mask and puts his pet chimpanzee on the lease.

Starve a cold, feed a fever (or the reverse) is a crusty old gem handed down from old wife to old wife, then finally to the Farmer's Almanac. Along with going outside with wet hair, it's a cautionary fallacy regardless of which way you phrase it. Though it's true having a stuffed nose decreases your sense of smell, and possibly your appetite, restricting your food when you are sick just weakens your defenses. Likewise, overeating when sick causes similar stress and might simply add nausea to your list of complaints.

The common cold is caused by over 200 different viruses that can live for hours on surfaces like keyboards, chained bank pens, or anything within 10 feet of a kid. They enter the body through the nose, most often by a drifting sneeze droplet or a badly behaved finger. Rubbing your eyes can also introduce the menace, which slides down your tear ducts to viral ground zero where the back of the nose meets your throat. Upon successful entry, it will inject its own genetic material into a nasal cell and seize command, directing manufacture of new, self-assembling viral parts. Soon, hundreds of new viruses fill the cell to bursting, setting free an unruly mob ready to repeat the process. The body reacts with an immune response and releases, among other chemicals, histamine, which causes the runny nose, sneezing and watery eyes associated with a cold.

Investigations show that 95 percent of people directly exposed to virus particles will become infected, though a quarter may not produce symptoms. Remarkably, it's those with strong immune systems who become symptomatic. The characteristic sneezing, sinus pressure, and low-grade fever are part of the body's defense mechanism. For example, fever and blocked nasal passages increase the temperature of the sinuses (to kill viruses), and runny noses and sneezing are an effort to expel the invaders. Unfortunately, the latter symptom serves mainly to send an infectious mist toward your roommate. And since antibiotics only kill bacteria, not viruses, for simple colds they are useless. So a doctor visit is generally unnecessary unless a high fever, severe body aches, ear infection or breathing difficulties occur.

Contrary to your dad's secretary, neither zinc, garlic, nor echinacea have been proven to cure the common cold. On the other hand, Vitamin C does seem to shorten the duration by about a day, but high doses can lead to diarrhea (doesn't seem like the best trade, does it?). Chicken soup, or Jewish Penicillin, has actually been shown to contain compounds that break up mucus and boost immune function. Little research has been done on matzo balls, but floaters are certain to outperform sinkers.

Common wisdom is that colds last seven days if you treat them, and one week if you don't. Over-the-counter cold medicines can be helpful if you can't sleep or must work, but allowing your immune system to function is better (albeit hard to take) advice. Also, if policemen reach for their weapons when you blow your nose, try blowing lightly. Forceful blowing can propel bacteria-laden nasal fluids upward into raw sinus tissue, increasing likelihood of sinus infection.

Starving a cold is definitely not a good idea, but other motherly advice is warranted. Mom always said drink lots of fluids, rest and let her take care of you. Since all you have is a roommate, you'll have to improvise. To find out if he's truly well meaning and not just after your groceries, suggest that he make you a steaming bowl of chicken soup. If he hands you his new iPod while he chops the carrots, you'll know Mom would approve.

Dr. Ed Rabin is a chiropractor practicing at Life Chiropractic Center in Boise. Send your infectious droplets and health-related questions to theantidote@edrabin.com (on the Web at www.edrabin.com).

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