The Hard Cold Facts

I dimly heard the classical music playing and rolled over to hit the snooze button. I am not a morning person. Everything about my morning prep has to be carefully planned the night before or I am useless. Turning away from the clock radio, I swallowed and felt a knot in my throat. Crap… it felt suspiciously like the sore throat from an oncoming cold. While I drifted between sleep and wakefulness, I considered my options. After nine minutes, the alarm came on again and I shut it off. I now had ten minutes of waking up to make a decision. Sometimes I fall back asleep, but I always wake up in time to leave by seven. And even if I miss my deadline, I have twenty-five minutes extra built into my drive time. I need this cushion since weather or accidents can hinder my drive down Ute Pass. Ensuring extra commuting time is better than driving like a maniac, getting a ticket, or worse.

I thought about my day and decided that calling off wasn’t a good option. I had two reports that had to be done by nine. So I got up. I also took some aspirin. I was going to need it. Sure enough as the day went on, my cough and sore throat got worse. People commented that I didn’t look so good. By lunch, my boss and I agreed that going home was the best option. So I did. After two-and-a-half days in bed (I really only needed one-and-one-half, but don’t tell my boss), I felt well enough to go back to work. This was a typical cold for me… two or three days of misery and then I’m back on my feet. I work in a prison now, so I am exposed to all kinds of viruses. Thirty-one years of public school teaching also challenged my immune system frequently. Early in my career, a virus would knock me out for one or two weeks. Now, I seldom need to even take a day off. And I often sail through facility epidemics without a sniffle.

What’s my secret? How do I stay out of the cold/flu/pneumonia sick bed? It is not diet, exercise (seriously?), supplements, or even good genetics. Sure, I have tried things like zinc tablets and vitamin C at the first sign of a cold. They work, but not well enough to justify their expense. All I really do is get a yearly flu shot, wash my hands carefully every couple of hours, and take sick days when I need them. I often go outside in the cold without a hat and with wet hair (what little of it there is.) Most people have heard that being cold and wet doesn’t make you sick, but Grandma’s nonsense is still passed around and some people still swear by it. Call it alternative facts for a post-truth reality.

Funny thing about scientific facts is that they don’t care what you believe. I used to have a sign above my classroom entrance that read: “Newton’s Laws of Motion strictly enforced in this classroom.” Included with the caption was a cartoon of a teacher getting hit in the head with a flying book. I have had students who passed my physics course but were later killed because they failed to understand both the truth and humor of that sign. Most died in car related deaths that could have been prevented if they hadn’t driven as if Newton’s Laws didn’t apply to themselves, their vehicle, or the road conditions. Life doesn’t grade on a curve. It is completely pass/fail. That’s some life-saving information right there.

Thousands of human beings, including people in the Nazi death camps, have tested the idea that being cold can make you sick. Fortunately, most of the subjects were volunteers in prison who consented to be experimented on. Unfortunately for grandma, the results, which have been duplicated several times, are unambiguous. Being cold doesn’t give you a cold. And we dishonor those who suffered by ignoring what was learned. And before anyone has a fit, yes, I am aware of the Japanese study that indicated that there may be some truth to the old wives’ tale after all. But careful examination of that particular experiment reveals that it merely showed that cold viruses like cooler temperatures and not that cold makes people more susceptible to getting sick. Like I stated earlier, thousands of people stood out in the cold (in Minnesota for example) with wet hair, clothing etc. and there was no increase in illness rates.

We supposedly have a new reality in which people treat facts and opinions as logical equivalents. Some people bemoan this state of affairs, but it does have the advantage of thinning the herd as well as generating income for the Darwin Awards folks. Lack of critical thinking leads people to believe all kinds of nonsense. Exhibt A is that we have known that germs make people sick for centuries and yet mothers still tell their children, “Put on your hat or you’ll catch pneumonia.” People who are able discern what Lewis Black refers to as “fact facts” gain advantages over those who think Google and public opinion are sufficient guides for knowledge. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed woman is Queen. Science doesn’t always know the whole truth, and first drafts of history may, in fact, be written by the victors. But there is real knowledge to be found if one works at it. “And the truth shall set you free.” Or at least reduce your Kleenex bill.