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I like not catching colds, but I also like kissing my wife
November 9, 2009 7:42 PM   Subscribe

If your spouse catches a cold, how likely are you to catch it from them?

When your spouse gets a cold, what, if anything, do you do to avoid catching that cold, and why?

I wonder about this every time Mrs ManInSuit gets sick. I want to be nice to her, and enjoy her company. I also don’t want to get that cold. I wish I had a better sense of what the real risks are. So, say your spouse starts having cold symptoms (and you don’t have any). Here are some imagined possibilities of what that means:

Imagined Possibility #1 – By the time your spouse shows symptoms, you’ve already been exposed like crazy to their cold. If you haven’t caught it by now, it means you’re immune to that particular strain. So, like, don’t worry about it.

Imagined Possibility #2 – The fact that haven’t caught your spouse’s cold so far just just means you’ve been very lucky. If you want to avoid that cold, you should start being careful: keep your distance, don’t share cutlery, wash your hands a lot, etc. Otherwise, you’re pretty likely to get that cold.

Imagined Possibility #3 – Cold transmission is a pretty unpredictable and unreliable thing. For each day you spend with your spouse, there’s a chance you’ll get sick. But even if you’re totally incautious, the odds are you still won’t get that cold.

Can anyone shed light on which, if any, of these are most accurate. I suspect the truth is some complicated combination or in-between of all the above, but I’d like whatever insights the green might offer. Insights backed with reliable scientific sources or expertise are epecially helpful...
posted by ManInSuit to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
Rhinoviruses which cause the common cold are thought to be very contagious. Baylor College of Medicine says this "The introduction of rhinovirus into a household by one family member causes the disease in about two-thirds or of other family members. The illness is spread both by direct contact and by aerosol." This article from the Journal of Infections Diseases seems to pretty much concur claiming "Rhinoviruses were detected in virtually all children and in half of adults in families with a rhinovirus‐positive index child." Whether having the rhinovirus means you get a full-blown cold is up for debate. That article also claims "Asymptomatic infections are common in older children and adults, usually representing transmission from young children."

You might also enjoy: Rhinovirus: an unstoppable cause of the common cold
posted by jessamyn at 7:49 PM on November 9, 2009 [4 favorites]


Option 4: depends from couple to couple. I know of couples of whom only one will ever get sick, the other always the care-taker. Others might share sickness. Of me and my wife, I rarely get sick, but when I do, I get a full fever, while my wife gets sick more often, but nothing so serious. We don't seem to share sicknesses, or if we do, it changes between the two of us. My wife used to live with her younger sister, and they would share sicknesses most of the time.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:50 PM on November 9, 2009


I rarely get a cold when mrs foodgeek gets a cold and I don't move out back into the chicken coop when she gets a runny nose.
posted by foodgeek at 7:52 PM on November 9, 2009


Thanks, Jessamyn!

If I understand, you're saying that if your spouse has the rhinovirus, you'll likely get the rhinovirus, too. But getting the rhinovirus may or may not actually entail getting a symptomatic cold. Is that right?

Then I guess my question is - if you get that rhinovirus, what are the odd you actually get sick.

Whether having the rhinovirus means you get a full-blown cold is up for debate.

Let's have that debate here!
posted by ManInSuit at 7:54 PM on November 9, 2009


I suppose I left out imaginary possibility #4 - You might or might not get a cold from your spouse. But any steps you take, short of moving out of the house altogether, are unlikely to affect the odds of you catching that cold- there are just too many possible means of transmisson between two people lving togethr to be able to control them.
posted by ManInSuit at 7:55 PM on November 9, 2009


thief, foodgeek - do you alter you behaviour in any way when your spouse is sick? I often make halfhearted attempts to be a little careful around my sick spouse, but I wonder if they really make any difference.
posted by ManInSuit at 7:57 PM on November 9, 2009


My kids would get colds all the time. I would wipe their noses for them, kiss them goodnight and clean up the tissues from the floor in the morning. I would not catch their colds. I see it as fate. I think it is impossible to predict with any certainty other than to say avoiding a sick person would likely be better than not.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:59 PM on November 9, 2009


if you get that rhinovirus, what are the odd you actually get sick

In order to answer this you would need to know the probability of getting sick, as odds for an event occurring = P(event) / [1 - P(event)].

I don't think anyone can tell you what the probability of getting infected from an infected spouse is. There are simply too many variables involved.
posted by dfriedman at 8:01 PM on November 9, 2009


Now I'm trying to remember where I read this.... I think it was in a book about the CDC, because of course I read that stuff for fun.... they were talking about a project that took place at one of those odd out of the way medical testing labs. I don't even remember if it was in the UK or the US. They whad people with colds and then other people there whose job it was to deliberately try to get these colds. So there was some sort of sharing of tissues or something else, swabs, that would pretty much insure that one person would get little blobs of whatever the sick person had. And they all lived in the same place and what they found [and I'll go searchign for a cite later] was that some people just didn't get sick, no matter what. Other people would start sneezing and whuffling as soon as they got near someone else's infected tissues.

I'll try to find where I read it, but the takeaway is that some people can be asymptomatic despite being carriers of the rhinovirus and some people get full blown colds. So my feeling is that your chance of getting a cold from your sweetie is more predicated on whether you've gotten colds in the past than anything about how much care you take to wash hands and the like [after the sort of obvious steps you can take]

Ah, here it is: The Common Cold Unit (more)
posted by jessamyn at 8:03 PM on November 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


I've known households where if one person gets sick, they all get sick, and ones where the husband will get sick frequently and the wife never will. I think it would depend on what you've experienced so far - do you usually get sick if your wife gets sick?
posted by biochemist at 8:04 PM on November 9, 2009


thief, foodgeek - do you alter you behaviour in any way when your spouse is sick? I often make halfhearted attempts to be a little careful around my sick spouse, but I wonder if they really make any difference.

I make no effort to avoid my wife when she's sick -- we still share a water glass at dinner and all that jazz.
posted by foodgeek at 8:16 PM on November 9, 2009


Surely science has attempted this problem.

"Rates of transmission between partners were 41% and 33% for type 16 and type 55, respectively. These rates are similar to those determined in epidemiologic studies of natural rhinovirus infection."

-- Transmission of Experimental Rhinovirus Colds in Volunteer Married Couples
Donn J. D'Alessio, Judy A. Peterson, Claire R. Dick and Elliot C. Dick
The Journal of Infectious Diseases, Vol. 133, No. 1 (Jan., 1976), pp. 28-36
http://www.jstor.org/stable/30107209?cookieSet=1

(2nd hit on Google Scholar for 'common cold transmission spouse'. Be cautious of the year though, there may be more recent studies that have different information.)
posted by PercussivePaul at 8:27 PM on November 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Rates of transmission between partners were 41%

OK, so we have a probability here. Therefore, we can answer the OP's question about odds: 0.41 / (1 - 0.41) = 0.6949, or odds of about 7 to 10.
posted by dfriedman at 8:42 PM on November 9, 2009


For some reason my wife and I never seem to catch each other's colds. We've been living together for 14 years and that's always seemed to be the case. And we don't avoid each other either. (Now that wicked flu bug that went around last year... that got both of us and pretty much everyone in town.)
posted by azpenguin at 9:33 PM on November 9, 2009


Same anecdotal evidence as azpenguin. While I don't go out of my way to inhale/ingest her mucus while she's sick, I also don't quarantine myself (or her), so I've undoubtedly been exposed. Some people just have stronger resistance to these things.

Now let me just get this foot out of my mouth.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:24 AM on November 10, 2009


Thanks, these are all useful and interesting answers!

I did a bit more poking around online. According to a few sources (though none that were totally authorotative) - it seems like colds are really aren't spread through saliva. That's susprising to me. The idea seems to be that you don't really get a cold from sharing classes or cutlery or kissing. Rather, you get it from getting the virus on your hands, and then touching your eyes or (especially?) your nose. I did not know that.

link, link
posted by ManInSuit at 6:31 AM on November 10, 2009


Oh - here's a maybe slightly more authoritative "kissing is okay" link, I think from the same Common Cold Centre that Jessamyn mentions:

The common cold viruses are not spread by contact such as kissing but appear to be spread by large particles expelled at close range by coughs and sneezes, and by contaminated fingers that pass the virus to the nose and eye. Your fingers can easily become contaminated with viruses by touching door handles etc. in public places. You may then touch your nose or eye and infect yourself.

Here's the link from the CC, which seems, in general, a really good source of cold information.
posted by ManInSuit at 6:34 AM on November 10, 2009


Ditto other commenters: I don't drastically change my habits around my wife when she gets sick, and it seems the links you found back up our experiences.
posted by filthy light thief at 6:51 AM on November 10, 2009


odds for an event occurring = P(event) / [1 - P(event)].

This is a red herring. The definition of "odds ratio" in statistics is not the same as how regular people colloquially use the word "odds." Unless we're talking gambling payouts, when someone asks, "what are the odds ____ will happen?" they're just asking for a probability.

Telling someone the odds are 1:1 will likely make them think it's a sure thing, even though a 1:1 odds ratio actually corresponds to 50% probability.
posted by explosion at 7:03 AM on November 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


There's two different probabilities at play. What's the probability you were exposed? And what's the probability your immune system couldn't fight off the infection before you became symptomatic? That second probability is dependent on your personal history of disease exposure.
posted by Nelson at 7:27 AM on November 10, 2009


Let's not forget, though, that having sex boosts immunity. Immunoglobulin A (IgA), called the "first line of defence against colds and flu" in the article, goes up if you have sex at least once a week.

Whether this helps once you've actually got the cold or not, I can't tell you. But it's interesting, no?
posted by bitter-girl.com at 7:46 AM on November 10, 2009


The virus specifically goes to your respiratory system. That's why kissing is okay but you don't want to have anything to do with someone else's nasal secretions.
posted by Knowyournuts at 11:37 AM on November 10, 2009


(Marked Jessamin and percussivepaul as best, because they cite scholarly works. Marked my own as best, because I have no class. All responses were really helpful, and all the anecdotal posts of "I don't get sick when my spouse is sick" were reassuring.)
posted by ManInSuit at 2:42 PM on November 10, 2009


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