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Image of the Week: Rhinovirus, the common cold

7 Feb, 2014

B0006938 Common cold virus

This week’s image would make a great alien in a sci-fi film, and what it actually depicts might also make you shiver (literally).

This colourful computer graphic from 2008 represents the protein coat (capsid) of the human rhinovirus, which causes nearly 50% of common colds. With the current wet and windy conditions, you’ll want to keep a safe distance from these if you can, but at least now you know what to look out for.

Or not. These are actually tiny, and not something you can see with the human eye. At roughly 30 nanometres across (that’s about one-thousandth of the size of an average human cell) you need an electron microscope to make out their structure.

There are over 100 types of rhinovira, made up of four kinds of viral proteins, and a single-stranded RNA genome. Once they enter and infect the upper respiratory tract, they work fast. They attach to receptors on cells within fifteen minutes, stop normal operations of the cell, and then the virus duplicates itself thousands of times. Symptoms of a cold usually present themselves within 12-72 hours.

People have been searching for cures for the common cold for years. The plethora of one-time potential panaceas include: dirty socks wrapped around one’s neck at night; Japanese pickled plums (umeboshi); the Jewish classic of chicken soup (as Maimonides wrote in praise of); rubbing salt herring on the soles of one’s feet; a hot toddy; all kinds of tablets and tonics and much more besides.

Unfortunately, since there are so many viruses that can lead to a cold, and viruses can quickly develop drug resistance, it’s unlikely there will be a “silver bullet” remedy. So good luck avoiding this microscopic threat to your health, and let’s hope these little “aliens” don’t attack your respiratory tract any time soon.

Wellcome Images is one of the world’s richest and most unusual collections, with themes ranging from medical and social history to contemporary healthcare and biomedical science. All our images are available in digital form and many are free to use non-commercially under the terms of a Creative Commons licence.

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