Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/January 1884/Catching Cold


By C. E. PAGE, M. D.

"She caught her death o' cold, taking gruel out of a damp basin."—Old Story.

THERE has always been more or less of mystery connected with the disorder popularly called "a cold." A close observer, in studying this question, will find:

1. That, while persons of all ages, sexes, occupations, social positions, and in all conditions of general health—from the delicate infant and the frail consumptive to the most robust man—have colds, say to-day, from the slightest causes, often enough, indeed, when utterly at a loss to account for the attack; next month, or next week, perhaps, the same individuals—the frail and delicate ones, even—may pass through severe exposures to wet and cold, even to the point of being chilled through and through, without producing a symptom of this disorder.

2. Every day throughout the year we see evidences of the disease; to the last individual in any community none escape altogether, a large proportion are affected several times, and individuals there are who rarely pass an entire month without some of the symptoms; while others, notably children and infants who are fed every hour or two, are almost constant sufferers from nasal catarrh, difficult breathing ("snuffles"), and general malaise, and are peculiarly subject to acute attacks.

3. Whenever it happens that an unusually large proportion of the people are attacked at about the same time, the disease is popularly attributed to the influence of an "influenza-wave"; but this theory seems to me utterly untenable, else a still larger proportion would be thus affected, and the disease would, in general, be confined to such periods; whereas very many escape at such times, only, alas! to fall victims to the disorder during the finest season of the year, when the weather is the mildest and most charming and the temperature most uniform. Indeed, some of the severest "attacks" are observed at such times, and the disease is far more prevalent during a season of steady hot weather in summer than during a period of steady cold weather in winter! But it is during a warm spell in midwinter, after the world has for quite a period of intense cold been confined within-doors, that "everybody has a cold"!

4. While the disease under consideration is no respecter of persons, but is as universal as the dietetic habits of the people are uniform, there is one class, viz., vegetarians, who are very much less subject to it, often passing the entire year without an attack, or, if attacked, are less seriously affected, and recover more speedily than others about them. Individuals, indeed, there are, living still more abstemiously, and paying proper regard to the ventilation of their dwellings, who never have a cold, though half the town may be sick with the disease: the "wave" never touches even the hem of their garments.

5. Members of this class, however, upon resuming their former practices as to diet, returning to the "mixed" diet and three meals a day, also resume the habit of "catching cold"; indeed, a visit of a few weeks, in a family of "good livers," especially if the latter are "air-haters" also, will often produce an attack.

Personally, though a life-long sufferer from the disease in various forms, from the "snuffles" of infancy to the "hay-fever" of adult age, together with occasional attacks of neuralgia, rheumatism, throat and lung affections, etc., I now find it impossible to excite any of the "well-known symptoms," or, in fact, any form of disease, though subjecting myself to what many would consider the most suicidal practices in the matter of exposure to the elements, so long as I live upon a frugal diet, chiefly cereals and fruit, served plainly—nominally two meals a day; holding myself ready, however, to "skip" a meal when necessary, i. e., whenever any of the symptoms of indigestion, as acid stomach, flatulence, pressure in the region of the lungs or stomach, etc., warn me of having carried the pleasures of the table a trifle beyond the needs of the organism.

I have, in my efforts to "catch" cold, submitted myself to exposures that to the minds of most people would appear of a suicidal character, wearing low shoes and walking in snow and slop until both socks and shoes were saturated, sitting an hour in that condition and going to bed without warming my feet; removing flannel under-garments in midwinter on the approach of colder weather, and attending to out-door affairs without the overcoat habitually worn; sleeping with a current of air blowing directly on my head and shoulders; sitting entirely naked in a draught, on a very cold, damp night in the fall, for fifteen minutes before getting into bed; wearing cotton night-shirt and sleeping under light bed-covers on the night following the use of flannel gown and heavy-weight bedclothes; rising from bed on a cold, rainy morning, and sitting naked for an hour, writing, and then putting on shirt and trousers only, the shirt almost saturated with rain and the trousers quite damp, from hanging by the window—these and similar experiments I have tried repeatedly, but without catching cold: I become cold, and become warm again, that is all.[1]

On the other hand, changing the nature of my experiments, going back to my old habits as to diet the indulgence of what we call a "generous" diet—the universal mixed diet of the people, viz., fish, flesh, fowl, with the hot, stimulating, and greasy condiments almost invariably associated with this class of food, together with pastry, puddings, and sauces, coffee, etc.—I have found no difficulty in accumulating a "cold," and within a reasonable length of time—the time depending upon the degree of my over-indulgence as to frequency and amount—although, now, a part of the programme consisted in taking the most extreme care to avoid everything in the way of "exposures," as this term is commonly applied—keeping the feet dry and warm, paying the utmost attention to wraps, etc., etc. Indeed, my own experience and observation satisfy me of the truth, and furnish ample explanation for it, of the oft-expressed opinion that those people who wrap the most and take the most care in such respects are the greatest sufferers from "colds"; and, theoretically, this would be the logical deduction from a consideration of the simple facts taught even in the primary text-books on physiology: certainly, the less clothing one wears and the more he is exposed to cold, the nearer he is carried, metaphorically speaking, to the polar regions, where surfeit-fever is unknown! Said an observing friend to me, "I am apt to catch cold when I put on my winter flannels—why is it?" My explanation was satisfactory to him, for he was a bright man; but, in general, it is difficult for people to comprehend the fact or the principle involved therein.[2]

In the course of my experiments, whenever I have fed my cold as far as I wished or dared to go, I have, in every instance, banished the disease by entirely abstaining from food for a time; I have never known this remedy (if applied at the very onset) to fail of "breaking up" a common cold in twenty-four to forty-eight hours, whatever the age, sex, or occupation of the patient. However we may differ as to the origin of the disorder, whenever I can prevail upon a sufferer to try this remedy, we come to be of one opinion as to what will most surely and speedily "cure" it.

Of course the size of the "dose" must bear some relation to the severity of the case:[3] On the first appearance of the disease—the symptoms of a slight cold, so familiar to all—skipping a single meal, in the case of a person who takes but two meals a day habitually, or two meals, in the case of a three-mealer, will sometimes suffice, if the succeeding meals be very moderate ones. I have usually, in my experimentation, been satisfied to "turn" at the "one-meal buoy," not often being obliged to abstain longer than twenty-four hours. When, however, I have chosen to prolong the experiment by continuing to eat heartily, as is the custom with people in general at such times, I have found my experience identical with theirs: the symptoms would increase in severity, and to nasal catarrh, headache, slight feverishness, and languor, would be added sore-throat, perhaps, with pressure at the lungs, hoarseness, increased fever, and entire indisposition for exertion. In this case, two, perhaps three days' fasting would be required, with a little extra sponging of the skin, to completely restore the balance. Out-door air is desirable, and—when not demanding too great effort—exercise. Air-baths, when there is much feverishness of the skin, are comforting and curative. The practice of holding down the bed-clothes, in case of fever and delirium, lest the burning body "catch cold," and of stinting the supply of fresh air for the same reason, is no less irrational than to withhold water or to offer food.

Years of study and observation have forced me to the conclusion that the disease which manifests the symptoms popularly supposed to indicate that a cold has been caught is to all intents and purposes a filth-disease, arises largely from indigestion, and forms the basis, so to say, or is in fact the first stage of all the so-called filth-diseases. Whatever interferes with digestion or depuration, or depraves the vital organism in any manner, produces an impure condition of the body a condition of disease; and a continuance of disease-producing habits must inevitably result in periodical or occasional "eruptions," the severity of which will depend upon the degree of one's transgression. Among the causes of this impure bodily condition are (1) impure food,[4] (2) excess in diet, and (3) impure air. Our homes, offices, shops, halls, court-houses, churches, and, with rare exceptions, all living-rooms, private or public, are insufficiently or not at all ventilated; and, except while in the open air, a very large proportion of our people, in all the walks of life, habitually breathe an atmosphere vitiated by being breathed over and over again; they are starving for want of oxygen, and are being poisoned by carbonic acid. In default of sufficient oxygen the best of food can not be transformed into pure blood there will always be a corresponding indigestion; nor can the carbonic acid be eliminated freely in an impure atmosphere. We have, then, serious "interference with digestion and depuration," whenever we remain even for a single hour of the twenty-four in an "in-door" atmosphere, i. e., an atmosphere that is not in tolerably free communication with the great body of air without. The only offset for restriction in oxygen is restriction in diet and exercise; but a combination of this character would produce enfeeblement of the system, though if a proper balance were maintained there would arise no febrile symptoms such as we are considering. We have plenty of people living in unventilated rooms who, so far as exercise is concerned live a well-balanced life; but seldom do these, any more than the robust and active, practice any sort of voluntary restriction as to quality or quantity of food nausea and lack of appetite being the only safeguards. Persons of this class are great sufferers from colds. Impure air, although a prevailing source of disease, is not absolutely essential in provoking this disorder; an unwholesome diet alone being sufficient. In none of my own experiments have I suffered any restriction in the matter of pure air. But for this depraved condition—this chronic state of impurity—that I have undertaken to describe and account for, such sicknesses as croup, diphtheria, pneumonia, measles, scarlet, typhus, typhoid,[5] rheumatic, "malarial," and other fevers.

I have already remarked that the condition of disease produced by an unhygienic mode of living, relating chiefly to food and air, and whose occasional ebullitions are observed in the "well-known symptoms of cold," forms the basis of most sicknesses by whatever name they are known. "I catched cold in the first place, and kept adding to it, some way, I couldn't tell how, and finally it settled on my kidneys" (or lungs, throat, face, limbs, or whatever organ or locality seems especially affected). As the nearest to a panacea for all the physical ills of life, I would offer this: Take care of the colds and the fevers will take care of themselves. Whatever may be the origin of disease, or whatever may give rise to its manifestations, whenever these manifestations or symptoms are said to indicate a cold, the condition, as every intelligent physician well knows, is that of fever: the thermometer placed under the tongue shows at once that the temperature is above the normal. The patient may, usually does, have periods of chilliness; his first noticeable symptom is, very likely, a chill; and if at such a moment he happens to feel a puff of fresh air on his cheek he thinks that was the moment when he caught his cold! Possibly he might have been feeling a little too warm, and that "draught"[6] did the business for him! Chills and fever, speaking in popular phrase (in reality it is all fever), indicate blood-poison, always. In its earliest stage, the patient, being perhaps wholly unaware of his condition, feels "too warm," and throws off coat or shawl; pretty soon he feels the reaction—the chill—and, thinking he has done a careless thing in removing the garment, replaces it; too late, alas! he has already caught cold!

"It is noteworthy as a curious yet easily explicable fact," says the "Lancet," "that few persons take cold who are not either self-consciously careful or fearful of the consequences of exposure."[7] It is not, however, that these over-careful people catch cold from fear, but rather that their cowardice keeps them in-doors too much, or incites them to "muffling" themselves when they do go out—they quake from fear of "night-air," "draughts," and so cheat themselves of health-producing influences. Lacking active exercise and fresh air, or sweltering with an excess of clothing, they must suffer from indigestion. That is, though they may eat as much, or more, they can not digest as much as the fearless person who dresses light, pays no heed to the weather, spends considerable time out-doors every day, and, because of this, can not and will not remain in "stuffy" rooms.

The "fresh-air idiot" seldom takes cold. "That may be," says the timid, blood-poisoned, chilly man, "but he causes every one else to, with the open doors and windows." There is a grain of truth, if not of sense, in this assertion; for the pure air in contact with the skin, and in the lungs, of those who are most in need of it—who are filled up, so to say, with the impurities of indigestion and deficient depuration—the constipated air-haters—gives the needed stimulus, or, rather, so augments the vital powers that "the reconstructive process is initiated, and thus apparently the disease itself, but there is a wide difference between a proximate and an original cause. A man may be too tired to sleep and too weak to be sick. Bleeding, for the time being, may 'break up' an inflammatory disease—the system has to regain some little strength before it can resume the work of reconstruction. The vital energy of a person breathing the stagnant air of an unventilated stove-room is often inadequate to the task of undertaking a restorative process—though the respiratory organs, clogged with phlegm and all kinds of impurities, may be sadly in need of relief. But, during a sleigh-ride, or a few hours' sleep before a window left open by accident, the bracing influence of the fresh air revives the drooping vitality, and Nature avails herself of the chance to begin repairs—the lungs reveal their diseased condition, i. e., they proceed to rid themselves of the accumulated impurities.

"For," continues Oswald,[8] "rightly interpreted, the external symptoms of disease constitute a restorative process that can not be brought to a satisfactory issue till the cause of the evil is removed. So that, in fact, the air-hater confounds the cause of his recovery with the cause of his disease. Benjamin Franklin, "whose wisdom was of that rare kind which does not grow old," expressed his conviction of the fact that "the causes of 'colds' are totally independent of wet and even of cold."[9] Dr. Herring remarks of a family of friends, "They all invariably had 'colds in the head' the next day after dining on roast goose!"

"The immediate effects of a displacement of blood from the surface, and its determination to the internal organs, are not," says the "Lancet," "as was once supposed, sufficient to produce the sort of congestion that issues in inflammations. If it were so, an inflammatory condition would be the common characteristic of our bodily state. When the vascular system is healthy, and that part of the nervous apparatus by which the caliber of the vessels is controlled performs its proper functions normally, any disturbance of equilibrium in the circulatory system which may have been produced by external cold will be quickly adjusted. Most of the sensations of cold or heat," continues the "Lancet," "which are experienced by the hypersensitive have no external cause." They have, however, an internal cause which I have endeavored to point out and account for, as well as indicate the natural remedy. A "chilly" person is a sick person, and is in a state predisposing him to an "attack"—a natural kill-or-cure sickness—whenever external conditions are favorable. But no amount of transient cold, or wet, or draughts, can alone originate the symptoms of "a cold"; the predisposing cause must of necessity exist, or the effects will be of a wholly different character: temporary discomfort—suffering, perhaps—and, at the worst (if the exposure be of a severe nature, as in the case of a feeble person), a lowering of the general health. Short of the point of freezing to death, or of exposure so severe as to render reaction impossible, the person will get cold and—get warm again, that is all.

There is a maxim worthy of all acceptation: "If you stuff a cold you will have to starve a fever." Unfortunately abbreviated to "stuff a cold and starve a fever," and utterly misinterpreted, a deal of mischief has been done, for which the only compensation evident to my mind is this: those who have accepted the first division of the command have gorged themselves conscientiously! They have taken allopathic doses of a homœopathic remedy—similia similibus curantur—with a vengeance! But when the incipient fever became well established did these superobedient children of Nature obey the second injunction? No, and with good reason, apparently—the first prescription proving a failure (?), they did not dare to try the second! Now and then, however, it has been tried, either because of the courage or exceptional intelligence on the part of the patient or his physician, and with uniform good results. Where the "fasting-cure" is applied in extenso, with appropriate water and air baths, sunshine, and perfect ventilation, the worst forms of fever rarely have a "run" of ten days—three or four days will often suffice to insure convalescence; whereas, under the milk-and-brandy, beef-tea, and tonic treatment, and "eating little and often," the flames are fed until the patients are burned to skeletons, and a large percentage fatally.

I think I should be justified, in the estimation of most people, in saying that mankind are by nature, or at least from custom, if not gourmands, certainly prone to over-indulgence in diet. I find, in conversing with rational people—and most people are rational to this degree—that they are quite willing to subscribe to this much: "Without doubt we eat too much, and indulge in many dishes of an unwholesome nature." There are, to be sure, many persons who call themselves small eaters, and who do, in fact, eat very little food; such would be inclined to take issue, and upon apparently good grounds, with the assertion that their colds could spring from overeating. But we must bear in mind that "excess in diet" is a relative phrase; the quantity of food, if we regard a physiological diet, must be proportioned to—1. The amount of labor performed, or exercise taken; 2. The degree of cold endured; 3. The amount of oxygen taken into the blood; i. e., the purity of the air habitually breathed, since all these circumstances affect the needs of the organism for nutriment, and therefore the amount of the digestive fluids that can possibly be secreted from the blood by the appropriate glands of the stomach, liver, pancreas, and intestines. Moreover, it must relate to the present physical condition of the individual: for example, the man who has recently been purified by a "cold," may carry off, without experiencing serious indisposition, a dinner of a dozen courses (curses, as Dr. Abernethy used to call them), either one of which would alone suffice to produce a violent "attack" of indigestion in the case of his neighbor who might be approaching, or already standing on, the "deadline"; but a succession of such indulgences, or continuance of the prevailing mode of living, will ere long again bring him to the end of his tether, so to say—to the brink of the surfeit-precipice upon which so many habitually live—to that condition of the system wherein a single dish of the most wholesome food constitutes an excess. In such a case the form of the disorder will depend upon various circumstances, as the constitution, temperament, or "diathesis" of the individual, the kind of food eaten, amount, etc.—headache, nausea, colic "cramps," or cholera-morbus (in the South, during the heated term, genuine cholera or yellow fever); or it may excite the symptoms of that initial fever popularly called a cold. Many people eat little, simply because it is physically impossible for them to eat much. Nausea or lack of appetite prevents them, not from overeating, but from eating a large amount. Such people habitually overeat. Even the small quantity swallowed, in face of Nature's protest, lack of relish, is relatively a greater excess than the huge dinner eaten by a "good feeder" when in condition. Hence, their frequent efforts to eat (every five or six hours, or oftener), especially in view of the kind of food necessary to "tempt the appetite," prevent a ready return to a normal condition—prohibit a natural appetite, i. e., a relish for plain food. For all such patients I would direct, first, a rest for the stomach (and thus a respite for all the viscera concerned in digestion, and relief for the excretories as well), and then attention to the due nutrition of the body, not the tickling of the palate merely or mainly. "Fasting, fresh air, and exercise, is Nature's panacea," says Dr. Oswald; and so, in practice, I have found it for a wide range of "diseases" that nothing else can reach. If we agree that disease results, mainly, from the breathing of impure air, the use of unnatural food or excess, and often deficient exercise, then it would seem to follow that ease must depend upon a reform in these particulars. In all my experience with sick people I have never known of the restoration of a single patient to fairly robust health in the absence of such reform. I have rarely known a person to become sick except as the direct result of some degree of fear of pure air, and fearlessness regarding the influence of impure food. Whatever else may have contributed to the production of his disease, it is seldom, indeed, that these may not be truly regarded as the principal causes. Nature's preventive and curative agents may be summed up thus: Pure air, appropriate food, exercise (active or passive as the case may require), skin-cleanliness, with proper ventilation of the surface of the body, i. e., through the use of non-sweltering garments, supplemented by rational exposure of the entire surface of the body to the air, by means of air-baths, sunshine in the home and "sunshine in the heart"—with these, and only these, all curable cases will go on to certain recovery. Without them no medication will avail.

  1. Accidents often cause worse exposures than any I have enumerated above, without exciting this disorder: for example, upon the occasion of a shipwreck on a bleak, Northern coast, in winter, not one of the stranded mariners or passengers would have "a cold" in consequence. Indeed, a sufficient degree of exposure to hunger and cold would tend to "cure" every case of this disorder that previously existed on shipboard; and if the exposure should not extend beyond measure—beyond the power of endurance of an individual or the entire group—no sickness of any sort would result.
  2. For the past two winters the writer has worn no under-flannels. He removed them in midwinter (1881-82) as a part of the treatment for "a cold!" The balance of the curative regimen consisted in a quick sponge-bath, succeeded by an air-bath with friction for fifteen minutes in a cool room, abstaining from food for the entire day, though the appetite was craving, engaging in active exercise in the open air. By night the feverish symptoms had disappeared, the oppressed lungs were relieved, hoarseness scarcely noticeable in a word, convalescence established.
  3. In the "Boston Journal of Chemistry," February, 1882, I reported a case of consumption (the patient, seventy years old, had been declining for three years, and was helpless in bed) cured by a forty-three days' fast. He had been a great sufferer; but his cough and pains gradually disappeared during the first two weeks. Within four months thereafter, on a fruit-and-bread diet, he had regained his normal weight and strength. A bad case of malarial fever, the past summer, yielded to a twelve days' fast, and nothing else. Another patient suffering from rheumatism, with night-sweats, fasted thirteen days, obtaining great relief. His night-sweats ceased the fourth day. Dr. Wood, Professor of Chemistry in Bishop's College, Montreal, reports for the Canada "Medical Record" forty-seven cases of acute articular rheumatism cured by fasting time required, from four to eight days and a recent letter assures me that this remedy is still successful with him. He consequently has come to regard rheumatism as "a phase of indigestion."
  4. Under this head I am led to class all foods eaten unnaturally, as (1) farinaceous dishes (the mushes, soft bread, etc.), that on account of their mode of preparation and dressing can not be insalivated; and (2) flesh-food that is "well masticated" or taken in the form of hash. It has been demonstrated (by experiments on dogs) that carnivorous animals fed on hashed meat suffer from indigestion, while, if they are allowed to swallow their meat as they like, in chunks, it is all digested. In repeated experiments upon myself, I find that a moderate ration of meat, swallowed in pieces of convenient size, occasions no disturbance, while the same quantity chewed fine, or taken in the form of hash, is not well borne. The point is, that while minced meat passes out of the stomach before being dissolved by the gastric juice, large pieces remain to be gradually dissolved. There is no demand for the chemical action of saliva on this class of foods.
  5. It is held by some that typhoid fever and some other diseases depend upon the introduction of germs of the disease from without the organism. "No seed, no crop," remarks a friend, and adds: "These germs do not always lodge, or, if they do, may not grow; but they may. Not all the thistle-seeds take root and grow." To which I reply, that neither thistles nor any other undesirable weeds ever "get the start" of a good gardener; and that, of all antagonists to obnoxious or undesirable "weeds," the vital organism, under the influence of rational personal hygiene, is the most alert and efficient.
    —none of these, or at least but seldom, could get a foothold.
  6. Whenever a patient comes to me with "a cold," complaining of a draught, I usually ask, "A 'draught' of what—pure air or impure food?" The answer, in the absence of certain physiological knowledge, is sure to be a blank stare of helpless ignorance as to my meaning.
  7. Former patients comfort me with such remarks as these: "Your colds-theory has given me a new lease of life;" "How thankful I am for being rid of my old fear of cold air!" "I date my first real improvement from the hour when you induced me to throw off my dread of cold," etc. "Now that I know what it is," writes a bright Southern lady, "I seldom catch cold, and, when I do, it gets away again right soon!" I am compelled to admit that all this is more profitable for patients than for the practitioner.
  8. "Physical Education," by F. L. Oswald, M. D.; New York, D. Appleton & Co.
  9. "Essays," p. 216.