Watch CBSN Live

Why finding a cure for the common cold is so complicated

Most adults get two to three colds a year
Most adults get two to three colds a year 03:45

A runny nose, sneezing, coughing, headache and sore throat typically lead to a self-diagnosis of the common cold. And while the symptoms are annoyingly clear, efforts to find a cure have proven maddeningly complex.

About 200 different viruses cause the common cold, reports CBS News contributor Dr. Tara Narula. The viruses latch on to cells on the back of your throat and multiply, attacking your nose, throat and airways.

Dr. Jeffrey Linder of Brigham and Women's Hospital says for now, treating the symptoms -- your body's reaction to the virus -- is your only defense.

"My three go-to things for the common cold are rest, fluids, and then an analgesic and fever-reducing medicine like either Tylenol or Ibuprofen," Linder said.

Drugstores offer hundreds of over-the-counter medicines and remedies for the common cold. They come in the form of tablets, sprays and syrups. Last year consumers spent over $7 billion on these medications. While some may offer relief, one recent study found a number of over-the-counter decongestants are no better than a placebo.

And though millions of people wish for it each year, there's still no cure for the common cold in sight.

"I hate to be a downer about not having a cure for the common cold, but there are a number of reasons," Linder said.

He said pharmaceutical companies would have to invest a lot of time and money because there so many different viruses and the potential drug would have to have a near perfect safety profile.

"We all get three to four of them a year as adults, but people don't die from it and so you'd have to have something that's inexpensive, effective, and doesn't cause harm on its own," Linder said.

Drug companies have tried to produce a cure but turns out the side effects were worse than the cold itself.

The science behind the common cold 02:23

Dr. Anthony Fauci is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He said it would be nearly impossible to prevent the hundreds of different viruses.

"Developing one vaccine against one or two or three of them is almost folly because if you protect against three out of 100 possibilities, the odds are your vaccine is not going to be doing a pretty good job of protecting you," Fauci said.

For most of us, a cold is more annoying than dangerous. But the elderly, children and those with weak immune systems or chronic lung disease can suffer serious consequences, or even death, from the illness.

Fauci and his team of researchers are focusing on potential treatments and vaccines for specific viruses that are more dangerous.

"We tend not to think about the cure for the cold, we think about taking individual viruses and determining whether it's feasible or possible to be able to develop a cure," he said.

For all these reasons, finding a cure or vaccine for the many common cold viruses is not a top priority for the major pharmaceutical companies. So if you're suffering from a cold this holiday season, your best bet is to just treat the symptoms, get some rest and maybe eat some of grandma's chicken noodle soup.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.