THE UNCOMMON COLD AND HOW I CURED IT

I snuffled, sneezed, suffered in bleary-eyed misery for more than 25 years. Doctors were baffled. So I turned detective. Then the wind blew, leaves swirled — and I had the solution and cure

ROBERT CAMERON June 1 1968

THE UNCOMMON COLD AND HOW I CURED IT

I snuffled, sneezed, suffered in bleary-eyed misery for more than 25 years. Doctors were baffled. So I turned detective. Then the wind blew, leaves swirled — and I had the solution and cure

ROBERT CAMERON June 1 1968

THE UNCOMMON COLD AND HOW I CURED IT

I snuffled, sneezed, suffered in bleary-eyed misery for more than 25 years. Doctors were baffled. So I turned detective. Then the wind blew, leaves swirled — and I had the solution and cure

ROBERT CAMERON

Air Vice-Marshal. RCAF. Retd.

ANY LAYMAN who claims to have solved the ageless riddle of the common cold is sure to be regarded by the medical profession and most other people as either a quack or a madman. ("We don’t even know what a cold is,” one eminent doctor told me impatiently, “to say nothing of what causes it or how to cure it.”)

So I will cautiously claim only to have discovered the cause, which led logically to the cure, of the uncommon colds that had plagued me off and on, with varying but always disagreeable severity, for most of my life. Anyone who recognizes a kinship between his miseries and mine is welcome to use my secret — provided he can find a doctor willing to co-operate, which isn’t easy, as I can testify.

My discovery wasn’t hatched in a laboratory (I wouldn’t know a pipette from a burette). Rather, it’s the dénouement of a sort of detective story in which the victim was my enjoyment of life; the elusive villain was an invisible, ruthless, unknown “something” that triggered my colds, and / was the bumbling, painstaking detective making endless notes as I pursued even the most trivial clues.

Almost as long as I can remember — and that goes back into the 1920s — my summers were blighted by repeated sudden colds, accompanied by bleary eyes, a runny nose and a conviction that life was barely worth living. One doctor I consulted gave me the classic advice: “Stay in bed a couple of days, drink plenty of liquids, take Aspirin every four hours.” Since I often went to bed for more than two days and took more Aspirin than he prescribed, I plaintively suggested that by now medical science should have come up with something more potent.

“Patience, my boy,” he said. "At least colds practically never kill anybody. If they did, medical research would be doing more

about them. It’s a question of priorities.”

Well, colds were very high among my priorities, so I looked elsewhere for help. In 1931 I visited a Toronto allergist (they were a rare breed in those days, and still are, for that matter). He gave me a series of tests and pronounced me sensitive to trees, grasses and ragweed pollen.

The doctor and I did not know it at the time, but in that diagnosis was the key to my problem, and presumably that of countless people who suffer from allergy-caused colds — the part about “trees and grasses.” But it was not until 25 years and hundreds of colds later that my sleuthing led me back to it.

The doctor administered the standard treatment: a series of injections, increasing in strength, of an extract of pollen. The idea was to build up resistance to the cause of the allergy. These injections, supplemented by periodic booster shots, certainly helped. I still caught sudden colds, but they were fewer and less severe. And, of course, there was that blessed deadline to look forward to: the first hard freeze or the first real snowfall put a sudden end to vagrant pollen — and to my misery. I would be a normal human being again until next summer. .

Then, early in the 1950s, something happened to that endurable pattern. October came, and with it Ottawa’s first frost and snowfall. But instead of vanishing, my symptoms grew worse. October went, and so did November, without any relief. It wasn’t until winter firmly settled on the land that I could breathe easily again.

A year or two later my RCAF duties took me to Washington, D.C. — and greater disaster. The late-fall symptoms became more severe, and extended to January. Clearly, something new had entered the winter of my discontent. I consulted a Washington allergist, who listened sagely to my past history,

agreed that there was virtually no pollen in the Washington atmosphere at that time of year, so that something else must be the trouble — and added that he hadn’t the remotest idea what that something might be.

But he introduced me to a comparatively new medication, antihistamine pills. They proved to be a mixed blessing. They didn't stop my colds or make breathing any easier, but they did dry up all the runny nasal passages — dried them, in fact, to a brittle parchment consistency. And by the time my daily dose of antihistamines had risen to six or seven strong pills a day, I was having a lot of trouble with a side effect, a “soporific effect,” the doctor called it. As far as I was concerned, it just made me dopey.

By 1959 one thing became clear: I couldn’t go on living this half-life. If the doctors couldn’t help me, I’d have to help myself. But how? The only method I could think of was to treat the mystery of my colds as just that: a mystery story in which a methodical old-fashioned detective notes down every fact and circumstance connected with the case. I started to chart the incidence of my symptoms against a variety of surrounding phenomena: the daily pollen count as reported in the newspapers, temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, cloud cover, precipitation, wind velocity and direction. An added ingredient was the medication I took and the effect of it, if any, on my colds.

By mid-October I was ready to concede that the experiment was a failure. No discernible pattern emerged. I continued to acquire colds of varying intensity which bore no discernible relationship to my charted facts. Then, a few days later, came the first small crack in the mystery. The tail end of a hurricane lashed Washington. High winds swirled through the streets and the parks, denuding the trees of their autumn leaves and piling them up like snowdrifts — and I came down with the most devastating cold I had ever experienced.

Later, when I could stagger outdoors, I lugged my records to the office of an airforce doctor who had been taking a sympathetic but hitherto ineffective interest in my case.

“What happened in the last few days to make a wreck out of me?” I asked.

He agreed to look over my charts and call me back. Next day when he telephoned he sounded almost optimistic. “Look, there was a lot of wind three days ago, right? And a lot of leaves blowing around, right? Well, I happen to have been reading a recently published medical book that suggests leaf molds might be a cause of allergy.”

“Leaf mold?” I asked. “Well, I’ve been dealing with allergists for more than 25 years and I’ve never even heard it mentioned. What is leaf mold?”

“I’m no allergist,” he said, “so I’m not quite sure. But I thought I’d mention it.’’

So I set out in pursuit of knowledge about leaf molds. If they were my enemy, just what were they? What I discovered was far

from reassuring. In the first place, the people who knew most about them were botanists who took little or no interest in their effects on human beings, but classified them as 10 thousand species of fungi that move in on the stems, trunks and leaves of trees, plants and grasses and make themselves at home there. In size they range all the way from Spanish moss that inhabits many trees in the South, to the Dutch Elm disease that has practically wiped out the elms of North America, to the bloom on grapes which determines whether the grapes will produce a tokay, a sherry, a madeira or a port.

Obviously, I was not reassured by what I learned about the so-called “leaf mold” that was afflicting me. (One expert told me, “There’s not even an accepted form of nomenclature.”) But another clue appeared. One of the few allergists who accepted the leaf-mold theory pointed out to me that the difference between pollens and leaf mold was this: Pollen is a by-product of a plant, the male element of a process of pollination (or, unhappily, triggering an allergy in human beings). Pollen dies when the weather turns cold or it becomes covered by snow. Leaf mold (for want of a better name), on the other hand, is a “primary entity.” It has its own life cycle. In cold weather it forms a protective capsule around itself and its spores. A period of comparatively warm weather releases the mold and spores which then become part of the atmosphere, invisible usually, though sometimes seen as a faint haze. The molds’ covering is moisture-soluble, so when molds are breathed into the nose, throat or lungs the outer part is dissolved and the protein content of the mold enters the bloodstream. It’s this protein that’s the villain of the piece.

Now that I could “program” leaf molds into the plot of my detective story, the pattern became gratifyingly obvious: In Paris, after six weeks of fine fall weather, there was a stormy day followed by sun and wind. I immediately came down with a flash cold. Now for the first time I began noting the pattern of colds among other people, on the ground that, if my leaf-mold theory was correct, the allergens must affect others. Surely I couldn’t be the world’s only victim.

WELL, THAT DAY in Paris my wife, who practically never catches cold, developed a severe one. And at the office every fifth member of the staff was snuffling and sneezing in misery. Another day, after a big storm, I had to cancel a date to take my daughter to a movie because a flash cold had laid me low — along with my daughter. After we patched up the runny-nose symptoms with massive doses of antihistamine, we went to the movie. The snuffling and sneezing among the audience almost drowned out the sound track.

And so the record continued: holiday in the Swiss mountains; little snow, warm breezy days — five out of six in our party down with flash colds within 48 hours. On the is-

land of Minorca when a strong breeze blew from the wooded mainland, it seemed that half the population, including myself, were coughing, sneezing and running at the nose. The natives blamed the “cold north wind,” although the temperature was 75. I saw no point in imparting my theory. The Minorcans simply would not have believed that the wind could carry cold-causing substances all those miles across the sea. But I had evidence that leaf molds and spores are prodigious travelers. Once an airplane in which I was traveling 20,000 feet over Colorado flew through a cloud of allergen. Within a couple of hours of landing five of the passengers — I among them, of course — were down with flash colds.

Now that I had solved the cause of my problem, at any rate to my own satisfaction, the cure should have been relatively simple: immunization of the kind used for any allergy. But 1 found the specialists I consulted skeptical of the whole idea, probably because a layman was presuming to formulate a medical theory that the doctors knew little or nothing about.

WHEN i DID find an allergist to work on me, he put me through six months of routine allergy tests before grudgingly admitting that maybe leaf mold was my enemy, after all. Then started a nine-month course of immunization injections, followed by booster shots every 14 days. The results were spectacular. My flash colds and all their unpleasant symptoms were reduced almost to vanishing point. It was like starting life anew, and I was understandably proud of the final success of my do-it-yourself medical research.

That should have been the happy end of my story, but it wasn’t quite. Two years later in Paris I had an agonizing setback: three bad allergic spasms that got out of control and developed into cold cycles as severe as those of the bad old days.

Soon afterward 1 was in Germany and, understandably depressed, I sought out a U.S. Air Force doctor who had taken an interest in my charts and records. He reviewed my recent history. He mused over the events for a while, then asked, “How often do you take your booster shots?”

“Every two weeks,” I answered.

“And how long after a shot did you get your attacks?”

I told him my records were in Paris, but I’d let him know. The first thing I did when I got home was to look up the dates and telephone the doctor: “Nine, 11 and 13 days after the shots.”

“Good,” he said cheerfully. “I was hoping that was the case. Obviously, when the leafmold situation is at its worst, your shots don’t immunize you for the full 14 days. Try taking them once a week.”

Well, that is the end of the story. That was four years ago, and today I can say (of course with fingers crossed) that I have licked my old enemy, leaf mold. ★