Common Cold Can Prevent the Flu Virus From Infecting Airways

Lungs Anatomy

Yale researchers report that the rhinovirus, which is the primary cause of common colds, can activate the body’s antiviral defenses and prevent the flu virus from infecting the airways.

As the flu season approaches, a strained public health system may have a surprising ally — the common cold virus.

Rhinovirus, the most frequent cause of common colds, can prevent the flu virus from infecting airways by jumpstarting the body’s antiviral defenses, Yale researchers report today (September 4, 2020) in the journal The Lancet Microbe.

The findings help answer a mystery surrounding the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic: An expected surge in swine flu cases never materialized in Europe during the fall, a period when the common cold becomes widespread.

A Yale team led by Dr. Ellen Foxman studied three years of clinical data from more than 13,000 patients seen at Yale New Haven Hospital with symptoms of respiratory infection. The researchers found that even during months when both viruses were active, if the common cold virus was present, the flu virus was not.

“When we looked at the data, it became clear that very few people had both viruses at the same time,” said Foxman, assistant professor of laboratory medicine and immunobiology and senior author of the study.

Foxman stressed that scientists do not know whether the annual seasonal spread of the common cold virus will have a similar impact on infection rates of those exposed to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

“It is impossible to predict how two viruses will interact without doing the research,” she said.

To test how the rhinovirus and the influenza virus interact, Foxman’s lab created human airway tissue from stem cells that give rise to epithelial cells, which line the airways of the lung and are a chief target of respiratory viruses. They found that after the tissue had been exposed to rhinovirus, the influenza virus was unable to infect the tissue.

“The antiviral defenses were already turned on before the flu virus arrived,” she said.

The presence of rhinovirus triggered the production of the antiviral agent interferon, which is part of the early immune system response to the invasion of pathogens, Foxman said.

“The effect lasted for at least five days,” she said.

Foxman said her lab has begun to study whether the introduction of the cold virus before infection by the COVID-19 virus offers a similar type of protection.

Reference: “Interference between rhinovirus and influenza A virus: a clinical data analysis and experimental infection study” by Anchi Wu, BSE; Valia T Mihaylova, Ph.D.; Prof Marie L Landry, MD and Prof Ellen F Foxman, MD, 4 September 2020,  The Lancet Microbe.
DOI: 10.1016/S2666-5247(20)30114-2

Other members of the Yale research team were Anchi Wu, Valia Mihaylova, and Marie Landry. Wu and Mihaylova are co-first authors of the study, which was primarily funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

2 Comments on "Common Cold Can Prevent the Flu Virus From Infecting Airways"

  1. Do not forget that just having a simple cold will be the cause of the contents of your nasal passages draining down into your stomach, or getting thrown out via sneezes or into tissues, so that its highly likely that not much else can stay where it is with all of that going on. Are we just normally throwing out lots of other far more dangerous bugs that way & in fact having a good streaming cold actually protects us from much nastier bugs ? I also have quite frequent mild allergic reactions like streaming sinuses & I have been wondering if it’s actually a good thing right now !

  2. Nice explanation

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