Feeding a cold

I wake in the middle of the night to the sound of rain on the roof and a dripping nose. The cold must be nursed. I feed it with distractions, reading about an anthropologist in New Guinea and a Russian mathematician. I croak a lullaby of my own invention about a mechanical bird made from pressed sawdust. One morning it came to life when a colony of termites took up residence in its gut. I have a thick stack of recent New Yorker magazines, which I got late last week at the very same time I contracted the virus, I think — their previous owner was dizzy with it. For some reason they are just what I want to read right now, as the virus glides like a slug on a carpet of mucous from room to room in my head. I remember my favorite Spanish word, otorrinolaringólogo — an ear, nose and throat doctor. A tragicomic word, especially with the scratchy bass o‘s one can only make with a cold in one’s throat. Of course, I hardly need a doctor. What I need is some kind of hard candy, such as Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls, which I saw advertised as Pure and Good on an old can that a friend of mine uses for something else entirely. Or maybe a nice cup of slippery elm tea, because who can quibble with the logic of drinking bark for a sore throat? But no decongestants or antihistamines. Histamine is there for a reason, I’d say, though don’t ask me what that reason might be. Besides, if I beat back the symptoms, what keeps me from going out and spreading the cold to others? If everyone took drugs every time they got sick, wouldn’t that just make the viruses stronger and more resistant to treatment, thereby endangering the frailest among us? I prefer this age-old notion of nursing a cold. Growing up, I also heard feed a cold, starve a fever, which may or may not be good advice where fevers are concerned, but it is pure poetry. The virus is my guest, like some incorrigible orphan in foster care, and it’s my duty to make it feel at home. It certainly has a healthy appetite.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

26 Comments


  1. Not too awfully long ago, I found myself profoundly ill in a strange hospital.

    I was running some horrific fever — 108, I think . People and light and the hours floated by like leaves in a stream. And I was floating, too: turning cartwheels above my bed, bumping my head against the florescent fixtures, giggling at the private joke of my dwindling consciousness.

    Then I improved, and began taking more of an interest in the concern of those who were visiting and treating me. But I remember an odd wistfulness as the fever departed: I would never feel quite that way again. Or at least not be around to tell anyone about it.

    Strange thing, those fevers.

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  2. Great story, but 108 degrees? Damn! Doesn’t that kill brain cells?

    Reminds me a little of how I psyched myself out when i quit smoking, convincing myself that the profound dysphoria was actually pleasurable, or at least interesting. And so it was. I wonder if your ability to see your condition as a bit of a joke didn’t in fact help you to survive it, like the proverbial bamboo bending rather than snapping in a gale?

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  3. I have a similar philosophy about illness, dave. I don’t take antihistamines (or any other drugs for that matter). I think the bodys’ immune system should be encouraged to work and kick the virus’s butt, rather than taking medication that encourages the virus to strenghen through mutation, in order for it to survive. I rarely get sick, and when I do, I always get well quickly.

    When I was eight years old in 1960, I had a 105 temperature for a few days. I remember hearing a strange song in my head over and over. I didn’t want people to come close to me or put their hands together in a certain way. Their hands had too much energy that I could feel. Years later, I saw a doctor who thought I may have had a mild undetected case of polio then. Quite possibly. My parents bought me a Barbie Doll game, for getting well.

    I hope your immune system is a triumph of tough cells. Be well.

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  4. Thanks, r.a. That’s another great story! I wonder what sort of song it was? I’m imagining something out of the soundtrack to a horror film… And then to get a Barbie! There’s a poem in this, I think.

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  5. Dave, I agree with your anti-medications stance and am all in favor of old-wives tales and folk remedies. One that a favourite uncle always used for colds (and it seems to work) was to boil together a grapefruit, lemon and orange, skin and all, then consume the result, at intervals during the day.

    Very interesting comment by Robin because it somewhat matches my experience of having a high fever, after an anti- typhoid shot, and undergoing an amazing journey, a sort of re-birth (wrote a long poem about it afterwards) at the end of which the hands of people around me had extraordinary energy, each one distinctly different. I often wonder if high fever experiences should be studied more closely, as possible gateways into some ESP world, rather than dismissed as “merely” hallucinatory.

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  6. Whoa. Well, as an old hippie friend of mine likes to say, “It’s all in your head, but that’s where it counts!”

    The folk remedy sounds like a great way to dose up on Vitamin C. I’ve just been eating apples, but that probably doesn’t deliver as high a dose.

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  7. Yeah, they eventually packed me with ice. A very interesting experience — I think I know what it might be like to die now, at least in some very limited way.

    Sure it killed brain cells. You’ve read Big Red Buddha, right? ;-)

    Peace and health to you.

    Miso

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  8. Well, I’m late to say that I, too, believe that when you get sick, it’s the body’s way to say it needs to eliminate toxins. So, let it do the job naturally. Not sure about letting a fever get to 108, though those experiences sound pretty wild!! There are quite a lot of homeopathic remedies available in health food stores to ease some of the severity of the symptoms – but I think you sound like you are doing fine, Dave. Just eat lots of citrus fruits, drink hot lemon juice with a bit of honey. Tske it easy and take care, Dave.

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  9. Miso – I’ve always envied people who’ve had near-death experiences. I tend not to believe in the survival of consciousness after death, but I suspect that the mind does a pretty good job of spinning the illusion of an eternity out of its last moments. I don’t know how to account for out-of-body experiences, though.

    Thanks, marja-leena.

    hot lemon juice with a bit of honey

    Well, I just had a cup of hot tea with fresh lemonbalm and honey – does that count?

    (I’m actually too sick too drink coffee this morning! Life seems suddenly shabby, dull and meaningless.)

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  10. Dave you should get a fresh ginger root. Shred about a tablespoon full into a cup. Put some hot water in it let it steep for 5 minutes. Squeeze some fresh lime juice into it. I am partial to colima(key) limes. Put some honey in it. Drink it. Also if a Vietnamese restaurant is nearby, a bowl of pho tai soup might help.

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  11. how about horehound drops? I have abag of those that belong to you…will pop ’em in the mail. Uncle Joe’s mint balls were very similar.

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  12. Fred – That sounds good. Maybe I’ll try it.

    q.r.r. – Oh yeah, I forgot about those! Thanks.

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  13. How frightful some of these comments are! I mean I’m all for “natural” remedies, and “letting the body heal itself” etc. Yes, sure, within reason.

    But if you get a mild fever in Lagos, and you don’t immediately assault it with strong pharmaceutical substances, you WILL be dead in four days. Malaria doesn’t play nice, and it doesn’t respond to chicken soup or vitamin C.

    This “listening to the body” thing has some serious limits. In certain parts of the world, if you impose a “no drugs” rule on yourself, you simply won’t be long among the living.

    (p.s. Dave, life actually IS “shabby, dull and meaningless.” It’s just that the clarity that illness brings is one we can’t bear for long periods!)

    Well, my work of spreading cheer is done. Carry on.

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  14. I like that the viruses seem to have both a sense of humor and a generous streak, the higher the fever the more hallucinations they feed you. Or maybe it’s a microscopic form of SETI, with the virus spaceships attempting to make contact with alien lifeforms, and all of us missing the connection? To think that all along sentient beings have been sending us messages and we scud on by, like Imperial starships.

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  15. Teju – I didn’t say anything about avoiding all drugs. My point was that, for these drugs to be effective at all, they shouldn’t be overused. But I’m fortunate in not having a 9 to 5. I certainly can’t blame people who take antihistamines or decongestants because they can’t afford to miss work, much as I might deplore the system that creates such pressures. In general I think natural remedies are preferable, and sometimes more effective. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with drugs per se. I’ve learned a lot from drugs. And if I had a schizophrenic kid or a parent suffering from chronic pain, you’d better believe I’d want them on drugs.

    But you do bring up a good point: my cavalier attitude toward sickness wouldn’t work in the tropics, where an untreated cut can lead to serious infection, etc.

    butuki – There is something deeply alien about viruses; I like the way they challenge our neat division between life and non-life. My own favorite candidates for interstellar visitors, though, would be slime molds.

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  16. Not you Dave. One or two of your commenters.

    My comment, by the way, wasn’t mean antagonistically. I’m just bemused at the safety from which people can say “I avoid all drugs.”

    In any case, I do agree that Americans (in my experience) have an unhealthy relationship with drugs– a consequence, I think, of an instrumental culture: “I have a headache, I’ll take a pill” instead of “I have a headache, what should I change in my environment to make this headache subside.”

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  17. Americans (in my experience) have an unhealthy relationship with drugs

    That’s the understatement of the year.

    One of the few honest writers on psychoactive drugs, wellness guru Andrew Weil, somewhere writes that the main psychological problem with drug use, and the basis of addiction (though he doesn’t use that word), is the sense of attachment to, and reliance upon, an external tool, just as you say.

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  18. My own favorite candidates for interstellar visitors, though, would be slime molds.

    Whose to say there is only one group of interstellar visitors? Viruses, slime molds, pin-head grasshoppers, mole-rats, pangolins (which I just love), tarsiers, angler fish… and, in this environment which tends to favor certain archetypal forms for different niches in the biosphere, humans, who seem to have no precendent among any other creature on the planet, except perhaps trees… all are likely candidates for “alienists” (as in “Islamist” and “Terrorist”).

    By the way,did the word “Islamist” exist ten years ago? I don’t recall ever hearing it before the New York tragedy, and I can’t find it in my American Heritage dictionary. “Islamize”, yes, but not “Islamist”. I always thought it was Muslim, or Moslem, or Musselman…

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  19. A wealth of riches, here…now my $0.02 on how I used to “cure” colds back when I was in college.

    Get lots of fresh OJ, a can of hot green chiles, and a small bottle of tequila. Administer small portions of each (leaning heavily on the OJ side of things) roughly hourly, until the symptoms bother you less, you sleep, or you simply quit caring that you have a cold (that would be the tequila talkin’.)

    Feel better soon.

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  20. butuki – I base my claim for slime molds both on their radical differences from other multicellular lifeforms, and also on the tendency of many if not most of their species to occur fairly haphazardly all over the globe, with little apparent regard for ecological niches. Human beings come close, yes, but the relationship with other apes and other mammals is hard to ignore.

    The Christian Science Monitor started using “Islamist” as a more respectful/less misleading substitute for “Islamic fundamentalism” at least fifteen years ago – maybe twenty. It’s been a while. I don’t think they originated the term, but I think they may have been one of the first international newspapers to adopt it.

    Lori – That sounds very Texan! I’m not sure how my sore throat would feel about those chiles. An old friend of mine used to be a strong advocate of a hot toddy — basically, an alcohol-induced fever, as I understand it. I can see the appeal of getting drunk right now. Last night, falling asleep was damn near impossible.

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  21. The Christian Science Monitor started using “Islamist� as a more respectful/less misleading substitute for “Islamic fundamentalism�

    Hmmm, interesting. So I guess there must be a definitive class of fundamentalist Moslims whom you can identify on the everyday street by the color of their fervor? If not referring to fundamentalist Muslims and trying to identify with less misleading terms a non-fundamentalist Moslem, what would you then call them? If Christians follow the teachings of Christ and Buddhists follow the teachings of the Buddha and are called such by their following, why are Muslems not then properly referred to more often as Mohammedans? I wonder if it would then be appropriate to call Bush and Falwell, “Christianists”, to distinguish them from the more pious Christians? Or people like Sharon as Judaists, and regular Jews as Mosesans?

    I guess what I am trying to get at is why is both the nomenclature and perception of Islam so much more confused and almost willfully ignorant than of other faiths? It’s almost as if there is an age-old deliberate refusal to make sense of what is being seen.

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  22. How did I get from talking reading about colds and aliens to talking about Islam when I should have written about it in your other post? Sorry about that.

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  23. butuki – I think the term “Islamist” denotes a Muslim who sees Islam as a complete and sufficient blueprint for how to run a society, and who tends toward a Puritanical interpretation of Sharia. The term tends to be used more for Sunnis, especially Salafists; Shi’a is a more complicated case because of the more authoritarian structures built into that branch of the faith. Examples of non-Islamist Muslims include Sufis, saint-worshippers and rural syncretic practitioners; the majority of Muslims in places like Indonesia, India and Senegal are not Islamists (which doesn’t necessarily mean that they would favor some sort of mosque/state separation in an ideal world).

    I don’t think there’s any mystery why our notions about Islam are so confused in the West — that goes right back to the Crusades. While the Christolators (my own term) can learn to tolerate Jews and hold out hope that someday they might see the light, Muslims are a harder case because of their claims to a new revelation subsuming Christian myths and replacing Christian teachings. Thus, Jews are merely benighted; Muslims are out-right heretics. With this millenium-old heritage of intolerance and aversion coloring the attitudes of even quite secular Westerners, is it any wonder that we tend to see Islam as monolithic and incomprehensible?

    But in general, I think Americans are aggressively incurious about the rest of the world. Why should we learn anything about those people, when we all know that what they really want, whether they know it or not, is to become just like us? In that regard, G.W. Bush represents us well.

    Sorry about that.

    Not a problem. I like chaos.

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  24. It’s interesting for me to now be working, essentially, for the drug companies. I’ve never take anything other than ibuprofen on occasion (and Nyquil if really sick with a cold and can’t sleep – knocks you right out!), and generally keep to natural remedies and Chinese herbs. But there are great meds that do a lot of good – my mom’s Alzheimer’s drugs and antidepressants, my dad’s hypertensives and pain killers; would that my brother would go back on his crazy meds (for fun sometime check out http://crazymeds.org/ ) because he’s a miserable cuss without them. Not to mention the life-saving ones Teju mentioned. Yah, they’re often overprescribed and there are ads everyday on tv encouraging you to ask your doctor for this and that when you’d be better off changing your lifestyle. But when you need them, you need them.

    Hope you’re feeling better!

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  25. BTW, after working on projects on antidepressants and antipsychotics, I started on one that deals with constipation side effects of opiate pain-killers – not a funny matter, as some of these people are end-0f-life and it’s a nasty situation. So I replaced my off-the-record reading from crazymeds to http://www.poopreport.com/ . You may find it amusing, especially given your recent crapper post.

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  26. Hi Leslee – I am feeling better now, thanks.

    My mother takes a battery of medications for a chronic pain condition, so my remark above wasn’t as hypothetical as I made it sound. My father avoids drugs at all costs, including aspirin, coffee and alcohol, but he still takes Neurontin for incipient arthritis (I think).

    Crazymeds looks like a good site with lots of solid advice. Not sure I’d say the same about Poop Report, but thanks for reminding me about it. I had only a vague recollection of it, from the last time someone mentioned it in a comment.

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