Ask the Doctors

Dear Doctor: My wife had a bad cold, and then I unfortunately caught it. Then, just as I was recovering, she got it again. What's going on? I didn't think it was possible to get the same cold twice.

Dear Reader: It's tempting, and even logical, to think that your wife's cold has ricocheted between the two of you. However, viruses are abundant and opportunistic, so who was infected with which bug, and at what point in time, is up for grabs.

It's entirely possible that you became infected with the same virus that caused your wife's cold. But it's equally likely that you brought home another virus of your own. If so, then on her next go-round, she may have actually caught your cold.

If she did indeed pass along her virus to you, then the second cold she caught was most likely a new and different virus. That's because, thanks to the marvels of our immune systems, it's extremely unlikely to catch the same cold twice. Even if you do manage to become re-infected, thanks to the antibodies provided by your immune system, the new cold takes a significantly milder form.

However, cold and flu viruses mutate readily. When that occurs, despite having developed antibodies to fight off the original cold, the altered virus can indeed make you sick again. Whether your family's illnesses were the result of one, two or even three different viruses, there are simple and effective steps you can take to limit their spread. These precautions are worth implementing at home, at work and while out in public.

Viruses can survive for up to three days on surfaces and inanimate objects. When caring for someone who is ill, don't share food, drink, dishes, glasses or cutlery. Wash everything used by the cold sufferer in hot, soapy water as soon as possible.

Be aware that the books, pens, remote controls, telephones, electronic gadgets and doorknobs that the sick person touches can harbor the virus. A spritz with a bleach solution or a disinfectant cleaner is a good idea. Making sure the sick person frequently washes or disinfects their hands is important. Ditto for the caregivers and all others in the house.

Do what you can to build up your own immune system. Eat well, drink plenty of fluids, take part in regular exercise and get enough sleep. Avoid rubbing your eyes, touching your nose or putting your hands to your mouth after touching public spaces where viruses may linger. And don't forget your annual flu shot.

If you do get sick, please don't try to power through. If your employer offers sick leave, take it. Your co-workers will be grateful. If you have no choice but to go to work, don't try to be a hero. Take advantage of the many over-the-counter remedies that can lower fever and reduce the symptoms that make colds so miserable. And follow good cold hygiene by taking every precaution possible: Sneeze and cough into a tissue, wash your hands often, and don't share food, phones or any objects that may harbor germs, so as not to spread the virus.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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