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How You Catch a Cold: A Short Story From the Virus's Point of View
by Edna L. Tello, M.D., F.A.A.P.



Baby dolls, puzzles and stuffed animals … two more hours on this cold, dry toy bin and I’ll perish.  My hope fades, then soars as a friendly human hand rescues me and drops me in the nostril caves. They are just as I remembered: dark, humid and inviting. I am Special Agent Virus—Rhino Virus 007. I belong to an elite group of about 200 special agents in the picorna family. My mission: Operation Rhinovirus Replication. The survival of my species depends on it.


I float with the mucus up the nostril caves and into the warm regions within. The temperature is about 91 degrees Fahrenheit—optimal for viral replication.With my strength recovered, I seek entrance into one of the cells that surround me. I have been able to disguise myself enough that the cell receptor does recognize me as an invader—yet—and to my joy, the gate opens.

Once inside, I infiltrate the nucleus with my messenger RNA, which contains the information needed to make other virions like myself. Success. The cell begins to manufacture replications of me.

The process, however, is not without inevitable opposition. The host has its own defenders: imposing enforcement T and B cells—white blood cells that carry the badge of the Immune System and seek pests like myself. Once these agents detect an invader, they pounce. I shudder at the thought.

And yet I sit undetected in the nucleus for one to two days. Although this is called the latent period, it should be called the gloating period, for I relish in my triumph as I watch the nucleus, at my RNA’s command, produce more and more viruses. The human experiences no symptoms, and the defenders have been duped.

While invisible, this growing army strategizes.


Finally ready to attack, the army charges the cell membrane, and the membrane explodes! The cell becomes a casualty, and the victorious army pushes forward.

In an apparent attempt to destroy us, the Immune System increases the body temperature—a fever—knowing that we are sensitive to high temperatures. Some of the young virions and I relocate to the entrance of the throat, a tunnel with one large structure at each side called a tonsil. The host cells here are ideal for us to hunker down in for the next three to four days.

Our goal is to divide into groups and invade as many cells as possible before the Immune System agents track us down. Once in, we can replicate and create a multitude of virions. Success depends on speed. The quicker we enter and replicate, the quicker we increase virions and destroy cells.

But the cells do not surrender. The infected ones collectively produce a sticky fluid that slows our operation. Some of my young brothers wallow in this thick, mucusy substance, which causes loud barky sounds to erupt from the human. Many get carried to the stomach, where they cannot survive. Those of us who escape move rapidly, perceiving this as harmless in comparison to the Immune System’s weapons of mass destruction.

The Immune agents have found us. Their weapons are far more specialized than the fluids humans call medicines. How did they engineer such weapons?

The T and B cell agents have analyzed the destroyed cells in the cave and, armed with their discoveries, dispatched hundreds of thousands of special agents to destroy us. In addition, the information resides in the memory of all the host cells; as a result, the next time a brother virion tries to enter, he will be identified and immediately destroyed.

This is now day four in this human. Many respiratory cells have given birth to a multitude of virions, only to be overwhelmed by the destructive power of the white cell agents.


We are entering the final phase of our mission. I swim downstream to get into the dark tunnel, accompanied by thousands of my young but mature virion brothers.

All of a sudden a loud and violent gust of wind brings me to a familiar place: the nostril caves. I feel weak and willing but unable to move. One of the hundreds of black hair-like structures in this place has trapped me. Many of my brothers are also trapped, but many more now surf on a yellow-green wave that exits the nostril caves, only to crash on the shore of a white, soft blanket. Then the human, with thousands of my brothers still alive in her tissued hand, approaches a white sink on which sits a strange bubbly substance in a clear container. I fear the worst for them and mourn. The obituary for my brothers will read, “Death by hand-washing, the single most destructive weapon humans possess!”

Wait! My human hears a pleading whine and pauses to caress a little human’s hand. My brothers spring onto his tiny fingers and rejoice as he places them into the nostril caves on his face. Salvation is here! My brothers are safe.

As for me and my accomplices, without a new human host, we will soon die, for the defenders are approaching. Two or three days are all that remain. The Immune System agents have my number, the host’s cells have been alerted, and the virion-producing assembly line has stopped. The Immune System has annihilated most of us, and only a handful has escaped the cave over the last two days.

The end has come.

In the distance I hear gusty sneezes and barking coughs, yet they do not come from my human. They are coming from the little human, which can only mean one thing: Operation Rhinovirus Replication has successfully been carried out.

Board-certified pediatrician EDNA L. TELLO, M.D., F.A.A.P., makes house calls with Personalized Pediatrics in Coral Springs, Fla., and has had her share of encounters with Operation Rhinovirus Replication.

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Last updated and/or approved: September 2010.
Original article appeared in September/October 2007 former print magazine. Bio current as of that issue. This general health-care information is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.
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