When It Comes to the Rhinovirus, We are Outnumbered!

rhinovirus and your immune systemI recently came across an article claiming that the population of rhinoviruses—the primary viruses that causes the common cold—is about one billion trillion. That rhinovirus number is so amazingly huge, that I had to put it into context to even comprehend it:

  • There are about 150 billion rhinovirus particles for every person on the planet.
  • If you took the 2012 US national debt and multiplied it by the 2011 US national debt, it would still be less than the number of rhinovirus particles.
  • There are an estimated 6000 stars that can be seen in the sky on a moonless night away from city lights. If everyone in the world looked up and saw every star every night, it would take almost two millennia to see as many stars as there are rhinovirus particles.
  • If you took all of the rhinoviruses and stacked them on top of each other, they would reach the sun and back over 3 million times. Consider that a rhinovirus is about one-third of one 100-millionth of a meter long. Oh, and those 3 million stacks of rhinoviruses would make a pillar of about a centimeter wide.

Even More Staggering Rhinovirus Numbers

Now, let’s couple those stats with even more numbers. There are over 100 different types of rhinoviruses. So, if you were exposed to one different type or rhinovirus a year, you would have a cold just about every year of your life. When you sneeze, there can be as many as 40,000 droplets expelled at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour. Those droplets can contain up to 1000 rhinovirus particles per mL (of course, the size of a droplet is much, much less than one mL). Finally, it appears that exposure to one rhinovirus particle is enough to produce a cold. So, cover your sneeze please!

With so Many Rhinovirus Threats, So Why Aren’t We Constantly Sick?

Given these numbers, you would expect everyone would always have a cold, which (fortunately) is not the case. Why don’t we have a cold all the time? Well, because of our immune systems. Rhinoviruses infect the lining of the nose and upper throat and our bodies have a way to protect against this. Over time, our immune systems have developed a number of systems to help us ward off the repeated exposure from rhinoviruses. We produce mucous, which acts a physical barrier to keep viruses from reaching the cells that they infect. We sneeze, which helps clear out particles from our nose. We also have antibodies in the mucous, which bind to the viruses and prevent them from infecting a cell.

If viruses get through these barriers and we do get infected, then our bodies produce an immune response to try and clear the infection. This immune response is often what we think of as “a cold”. The sore throat, runny nose, and cough are all actually caused by the immune response to viral infection. If we get a slight fever, this is also the work of our immune system. So, we can thank our immune systems for making us feel lousy. Of course, it beats the alternative—an unchecked viral infection.

Fortunately, most colds are just a nuisance and are not a serious medical threat. That’s no consolation when we have one, but at least we will almost certainly survive. And this is good for the remaining one billion trillion viral particles, since that leaves one more person around to infect.

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