Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Common Cold -- in the US and Japan

Hello all,

I haven't posted for a while because I've been whacked with a rather persistent cold bug. Usually for me, I get a cold, stay home a day or two, do good home care like orange juice, hot tea, salt water gargling, nasal irrigation, and my body gets the bug on the run and I can go back to my life while my defenses mop up the enemy.

That wasn't how it happened this time. I ended up enduring a five or six day battle before my body got the invasion under control and turned the tide. Now, I'm getting over it, and down to the clean up stage, when I go through a box of tissues in one day, but it's clear I'm just disposing of all the casualties at this point.

This got me to thinking about how the US and Japan view the common cold--in my experience--and I thought I might write a bit about it. I'll start with some of the older, leftover superstitions about the cold (which I have heard of--there could be more) that a lot of people seem to hold onto, even though science says they're wrong.

What 'causes' a cold -- in the US:

  • getting your feet wet
  • staying out in the cold too long
  • getting your head wet (or in general getting any part of your body wet, especially outdoors)
  • not bundling up warmly enough

What 'causes' a cold -- in Japan:

  • letting your belly get cold
  • sleeping with your belly exposed
  • sleeping somewhere other than your bed (like, falling asleep in a chair or on the floor)
  • being cold and/or not bundling up warmly enough

What actually causes a cold:

  • a cold virus

I had a high school teacher who once insisted "it's not cold air; it's bad air" that causes a cold--and he was, of course, correct. Although environmental stressors, like getting too cold, may cause your immune system to be a bit wonky, you won't get a cold unless a cold virus finds its way to your soft, pink, vulnerable mucosa. That's why we're supposed to wash our hands and not stick our fingers in our eyes, nose, and mouth. Most people know that now, but it's amazing how superstitions persist.

For example, in the summer, it's so hot and humid here that I sleep in almost nothing, with no bed covers, on the floor in front of my wide open windows, with wet towels on me. When I told a Japanese acquaintance of this habit, she was certain I would get a cold from it, especially if I put a wet towel across my belly. In the US, I know an older lady who insists that sneezing must come with a cold. Thus, if you sneeze, you're getting a cold. If you're not sneezing, you must not have a cold--despite if you feel unwell.

My impressions of how the cold is treated in the two countries are also different. I don't know how Japan before western medicine treated colds, so I can't make an informed comment on that. In the US, chicken soup, garlic, and other herbs and oils and solutions are among of a number of debatable home remedies. Then, antibiotics came along and for a while doctors handed out antibiotics like candy. However, since antibiotics do not help in the fight against viruses, and the more antibiotics that are used, the faster bacteria evolves to be resistant to them, doctors have since had to pull back and try convincing people of the truth--that antibiotics will not shorten your cold.

So, how does the US and Japan treat colds these days? Here are what I have experienced.

Treating a cold in the US:

  • bed rest (spending a day or more home from work or school, as needed)
  • orange and other fruit juices, water, hot tea, and broth (possibly including chicken soup)
  • a humidifier, sometimes, to help keep nasal, throat, and lung passages moist
  • salt water gargling (especially for sore throats, some people irrigate their nose, too)
  • pain killers if the throat or lungs are sore and painful
  • sore throat drops, or cough drops to suck on
  • over the counter medicines to treat the symptoms, but which do not actually kill the virus
  • stubborn people might still manage to wrestle useless antibiotics away from doctors
  • some people have other natural, home remedies they are convinced work (such as zinc tablets, extra vitamin C, echinacea, ginseng, and other herbs or vitamins) at the time of writing, science is generally without a consensus as to whether any of these really work. They might, and certainly some home remedies and treatments can help with the symptoms and make a cold sufferer more comfortable.

Treating a cold in Japan:

  • don't surrender! (most people I know do not take time off for colds)
  • wear a mask (which might help prevent the spread, except that you begin being contagious three days before symptoms have begun, so you don't yet know you're sick, and so won't have any impetus to wear a mask until symptoms begin--and of course, the mask will not help your cold get better)
  • go to the doctor and get lots of medicine (the doctor here always gives me antibiotics and two or three other medicines when I have a cold--I never take any of them)
  • rest (which I don't see people doing)
  • stay warm
  • there may be others I'm not aware of

If there are other ways of treating a cold in Japan, I haven't heard of them. Whenever anything physical goes wrong with me, the response always seems to be "go to the hospital!" When I first heard that, I thought "wow, this person really thinks I'm sick--on the edge of Death's door even." However, when the Japanese say "hospital" in English, they usually just mean the doctor's office. Another question I get when I have a cold is "are you taking any medicine?"

It can get tiring. My patience for the Japanese pushing of hospitals and medicines is surely as tried as their patience when I tell them no, that I am treating the cold with other methods. I try not to growl and throw my hands in the air in exasperation, and I can see them resisting wringing their hands and shaking their heads with their knowledge of the certainty of my demise.

The problem with a lot of beliefs about the cold--in both Japan and the US--is that medicine will help you get better faster. It won't. Aside from taking an anti-viral medicine, which would be way overkill, there is no medicine that will cure the common cold. Antibiotics certainly won't: they work on a bacterial invasion. A virus is not a bacterium. It cannot be fought the same way.

The human body has no recourse but to firebomb the affected area of the body and clean out the wreckage until the virus has been expelled. That's why a cold is so painful and produces so much mucous. The symptoms are actually produced by the body's defense--not the virus' activities. Trying to get rid of the symptoms is interfering with your own body's efforts to win the war. On top of that, giving your body antibiotics when it's a viral infection is like giving your body a submarine when it's an aerial attack: useless.

Despite knowing this, in the deepest, darkest days of my cold, I was tempted to take the antibiotics the doctor here had given me--even though he'd only given me three day's worth, which would probably have been totally ineffective even if I had been enduring a bacterial infection. I got only a few days worth because he feared the side effects, when, if it had been meant to cure me, I would have needed a couple weeks of them, to be sure all the bacteria were dead and thus prevent breeding antibiotic-resistant super bugs and a more serious relapse.

I do wonder if Japan knows about the super bugs and that antibiotics don't work on viral infections. They seem to embrace western medicine, though with their own curious twists on it--like taking medicine for everything, and thinking that everything causes a fever. That's the second question, after the medicine one "do you have a fever?" I have to keep explaining that I usually don't run fevers. In fact, my body temperature is about a degree and a half lower than normal (in Fahrenheit) so a reading of normal for me, is a fever, but getting up to what is considered a real fever almost never happens, unless I'm really, really sick.

At any rate, getting medical care and experiencing the Japanese societal approaches to a cold bug are an adventure beyond the language barrier. US people and Japanese people both have quirks when it comes to that, which can give me pause. Being here in Japan to experience a new set of quirks is sometimes frustrating, sometimes amusing, and best viewed remembering that Japan is a whole new world.


  1. I got each and every solution for mycommon cold from Web Health Network. They're the best in this field.

  2. Japanese hospitals must be cheap as hell if people go to them for something as simple as a common cold. Americans only go to the hospital if they're rich or on death's door. A week in a hospital can bankrupt you. Bastards charge $25 for a single aspirin. & that's not even an exaggeration.