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Five Myths about the Common Cold

Several different viruses can cause the common cold, and one way for these viruses to spread is when an infected person sneezes or coughs. A vigorous cough or sneeze launches small droplets of secretions from the nose and mouth into the air, where they can come into contact with other people nearby and then make them sick. These airborne droplets are a particularly effective way for some viruses, such as influenza (which can cause both colds and the flu), spread from one person to another. A 2008 study in Clinical Infectious Diseases found that people infected with cold-causing viruses sent particles carrying these virusesinto the air by coughing, talking and even breathing.

However, direct contact with someone who has a cold is even more likely to make you sick, whether or not they cough near you. Several major studies have shown that hand-to-hand touch is the most common way to spread rhinovirus, the family of viruses that causes most colds. One of these studies, published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases in 1980, also demonstrated the importance of hand hygiene — it recommended applying a liquid iodine solution to the fingers, though soap works well, too — in reducing the spread of the virus.