2306: Common Cold

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Common Cold
Not even metapneumovirus, easily the common cold virus with the coolest name, warrants our sympathy. Colds suck. No mercy.
Title text: Not even metapneumovirus, easily the common cold virus with the coolest name, warrants our sympathy. Colds suck. No mercy.


This comic is yet another in a series of comics related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This comic with talking viruses was followed by a comic debating if viruses are Alive Or Not?

Many of the measures humans have undertaken to fight SARS-CoV-2, such as careful hand-washing and sanitizing of frequently-touched surfaces, are effective against most pathogens. Hence, one of the ironic silver linings of the coronavirus pandemic is that the aggressive implementation of these measures is likely to slow the spread, not only of SARS-CoV-2 but of many common illnesses. If these measures become long-term social expectations, they may improve public health long after the current pandemic has passed.

Hand-washing with soap is a particularly effective way to disable coronaviruses and influenza viruses, which have a viral envelope. Most common colds are caused by a rhinovirus, a non-encapsulated virus that is not as sensitive to soap. Nonetheless, proper and frequent hand-washing appears to reduce the spread of most viruses, by removing biological residue which harbors the virus. Hence, more aggressive hygiene is likely to have at least some impact on most easily transmissible diseases. Handwashing was a major emphasis of anti-COVID measures in mid-2020 when this comic was written, though as more was learned about the disease (in particular its airborne transmission) the focus shifted more towards masking.

In this strip, Randall addresses the matter from the point of view of viruses. Specifically, those that cause the common cold, imagining them as sentient entities, with spreading infection as their conscious goal. Much like in 2287: Pathogen Resistance, the humor comes from the perspective flip, where health measures intend to protect us are seen by the pathogens as terrifying attacks. In this strip, the cold viruses become aware that more aggressive hygiene measures are putting them at risk, and hope to negotiate with humanity, on the grounds that, unlike SARS-CoV-2, they are rarely fatal. Their hope seems to be that, once the current pandemic is brought under control, humanity will abandon these measures, and allow them to freely spread, once again.

Cueball's adamant refusal likely reflects Randall's hope that this pandemic will result in lasting changes, slowing the spread of all diseases, including those which are merely very unpleasant, as opposed to actually fatal. By treating this as a conscious battle, people may be more inclined to be vigilant, and not allow the enemy any opportunity to recover.

While colds are unlikely to kill otherwise healthy humans, they still cause symptoms that can be painful, even debilitating, in the short term. Previous strips made reference to the miserable nature of the disease. In December 2015, Randall released both 1612: Colds and 1618: Cold Medicine.

The What If? book previously dealt with the plausibility of eliminating the common cold through aggressive physical distancing alone. The section in that book concluded that total elimination would be impractical. However, the current situation suggests that minimizing the spread of disease by careful hygiene measures is realistic.

In the title text, Randall mentions a virus with the name metapneumovirus. He states that this is easily the common cold virus with the coolest name. But that does not mean it warrants our sympathy (as it is present in up to 40% of colds, and can be deadly in vulnerable populations). And he finishes by stating that "Colds suck. No mercy." So Randall would not be sorry to see the common cold eliminated, or at least substantially contained, by our coronavirus precautions.

In reality, unfortunately, anti-COVID measures would indeed lapse a few years later, leading to a resurgence of several diseases, including the common cold.

This is at least the second comic featuring pathogens as a characters. The (at least) first was 2287: Pathogen Resistance.


[Three large viruses hang in the air in front of Cueball. The one closest to Cueball looks a bit like the virus causing the corona pandemic, although it is made clear it is not this type of virus. The other two are put together in small circles. The one behind the corona-like virus has 7 small circles, four in a group, one above and two below. The other has three circles. They are not so closely knit together, and may instead represent three smaller viruses rather than one large. The corona type virus addresses Cueball with a starburst above it indicating it speaks the lines above.]
Corona-like virus: Hi there! We're the viruses that cause the common cold.
Corona-like virus: This handwashing...
Corona-like virus: It stops when this is all over, right?
[Same setting in a slimmer panel.]
Corona-like virus: It's just, it's making things really hard for us, too.
Corona-like virus: Maybe we could make a deal?
[Same setting in a frame-less panel. The large virus also speaks as indicated with a starburst above it.]
Large virus: We won't kill you!
Large virus: We just want to get back in your throat and make you feel gross now and then.
Corona-like virus: Show us some mercy?
[Zoom in on Cueball, beat panel.]
[In the close-up of Cueball, he lifts his hand up, which has been balled into a fist. He is emphatic in his reply.]
Cueball: No.

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I saw a thing reshared some time last month claiming that after the hand-sanitizer-and-masks outbreak in Japan, some regions were recording record low numbers of influenza hospitalisations for this time of year. Thought that would be nice; but could only find unsourced claims. Would be nice to think there really was that kind of silver lining. Angel (talk) 23:30, 13 May 2020 (UTC)

Since people are really staying away from each other, the only way flu and common cold can spread has also been eliminated. So of course the rate has dropped. But yes, would be nice to see some citations. --Kynde (talk) 12:13, 14 May 2020 (UTC)
Found this Coronavirus isolation measures are reducing all flu-like diseases, not just COVID-19.--Kynde (talk) 12:15, 14 May 2020 (UTC)
And this is more up to date: Coronavirus: Doctors see huge drop in flu, common cold, diarrhoea and conjunctivitis cases since circuit breaker measures. --Kynde (talk) 12:16, 14 May 2020 (UTC)
While this SEEMS good news, I have wondered for a while now if, by eliminating harmless cold viruses that our immune systems are more or less accustomed to as "collateral damage", we might not accidentally open up new ecological niches, which then get occupied by MORE new pathogens that our immune systems are NOT accustomed to. So, it may actually a good idea to consider that deal.... -- 13:50, 14 May 2020 (UTC)
I don't think cold viruses are thought to be part of healthy gut flora (or gut fauna), but the "hygiene hypothesis" posits that failure to properly seed the microbiome in early childhood (i.e. not enough dirt in life) may lead to increased prevalence of allergies and other autoimmune disorders, because (perhaps) the immune system is under-exercised and so some of its regulatory mechanisms are under-developed. --NotaBene (talk) 15:02, 14 May 2020 (UTC)
Stepping up the speculativeness up a notch, an immune systeme permanently on the alert by flu might be good against cancer. That said, maybe the poor virii should just try to look more cute? 08:09, 15 May 2020 (UTC)

By social distancing, we are not harming cold viruses more than anything else ; what we are doing is basically shrinking the ecological niche containing it. So, no ... unless we will be so good in it we really eliminate cold viruses and when we do, we will then stop social distancing and grow the ecological niche again. -- Hkmaly (talk) 22:16, 14 May 2020 (UTC)

You guys are engaging in uneducated speculation. PLEASE STOP! Viruses are nothing at all like bacteria (which make up the gut biome). The mere fact that we need new influenza vaccines every year should make it clear that exposure to flu virus does nothing to generate "multi-capable antibodies" . Yes, playing in dirt may build up the immune system's ability to handle bacterial loads, but no it has nothing to do with viruses. Cellocgw (talk) 11:08, 15 May 2020 (UTC)

According to Taiwan National Infectious Disease Statistics System, the number of severe influenza cases in Taiwan was 109 on week 1 of 2020, then drop to zero since March. 04:54, 14 May 2020 (UTC)

Based on the railroad's Twitter feed which announces when service is suspended because someone got hit by a train, it seems that deaths from being hit by trains are down where I live. I'd expect some reduction in accidental deaths due to fewer trains per day running. However, the reduction in deaths is greater than the reduction in train service, so that's not the full explanation, especially since most of the deaths were suicides. 05:27, 14 May 2020 (UTC)

Has the general rate of suicide changed? Barmar (talk) 16:35, 14 May 2020 (UTC)
In Finland the sucide rate has been up 15% this spring.

Was this comic posted a day late? 11:36, 14 May 2020 (UTC)

No. But the DGBRt bot that uploads the comic is in the wrong time zone and there it was May 14th. But in the archive on xkcd it is listed as a May 13 release. I have corrected the wrong date. This has happened with two comics now over the last few releases. --Kynde (talk) 12:11, 14 May 2020 (UTC)

Current transcript indicates he is shouting the "no" in the last frame. I read this significantly more as an extremely forceful spoken word, not so much "THIS IS SPARTA!" OhFFS (talk) 16:04, 14 May 2020 (UTC)

Agree. Fixed. -boB (talk) 21:21, 14 May 2020 (UTC)


In the end, the only way to eliminate it *finally,* for good, is either almost everyone has immunity, or social distancing, contact tracing and similar measures. No matter how difficult. If immunity doesn't last long, then you've got a permanent problem unless social distancing can be maintained INDEFINITELY. And I want to point out that the problem becomes not just permanent but gains the potential to kill faster than people can breed. 10:26, 15 May 2020 (UTC)

Now it seems there are correlations between antibodies to common colds and to C-19


What the fuck. Respirational viruses are NOT spread via contact/smear infections. It is theoretically possible, if you finger sth that a sick person freshly coughed on, and directly dig your nose afterwards. You certainly get measels this way, where twenty or thirty virus particles are enough to give you a 50% chance to catch an infection, BUT NOT coronaviruses, where you need to breathe in ten thousands of particles for the same effect.

Dear Mr. Monroe, it is disgusting to now read this fakenews from your comic. Handwashing is good against all sorts of gastrointestinal maladies. Which is why hospitals are so strict on it. One day of diarrhoea and fluid loss is a deadly threat to anyone with a weakened body. But this has nothing to do with the flu or covid-19. -- 18:16, 15 May 2020 (UTC)

He (probably) doesn't read this, and nothing he put here as entertainment is "fake news" in any practical way. It's artistic licence without claiming authority. Viruses also aren't macroscopic, sentient and capable of conversation to the level of being able to ask for a boon. (Also, IME, those who shout most about fake news are believers or even instigators of actual fake news being touted as 'truth', so perhaps find a better term to argue with than that particularly devalued one. Just my general advice, which won't change very many people's minds, I know.) 14:21, 17 May 2020 (UTC)

I don't think it much matters whether the handwashing helps against coronavirus. The fact is: more people are washing their hands and doing it properly than ever before. And the point he is trying to make is that (regardless of it's effect on coronavirus) it is likely helping to fight things like the common cold.

No it doesn´t. Coronaviruses ARE one cause for the common cold, only that the current one has the side effect of making pneumonia more often than it´s brothers which are circulating the world every year. You don´t get it via smear infection, because that hardly gives you a dose high enough for an infection, period. And that is the same for all other pathogens wich cause the common colds, of which there are a number.
But thank you for proving my point. -- 11:32, 19 May 2020 (UTC)

Where's the joke 00:46, 22 September 2020 (UTC)