Kissing Provides Cold Comfort

Apr 21, 2016

by Richard Dawkins


The common cold is not serious enough to warrant high levels of medical attention, but it is unpleasant, debilitating, and economically costly if you add up its effects over a whole population. The family of viruses responsible for colds can infect through the air, but the favoured method is surface-to-surface contact. You can pick up a cold from a door handle, especially if you subsequently touch your face (as most of us do more than we realise). The custom of shaking hands could have been specifically designed by a malevolent virus, and there is a strong case for abolishing it. As for social kissing . . .

The habit of kissing on both cheeks as a social greeting used to be regarded as a French custom, but during my lifetime it has become widespread in Anglo-American society too. Male-male kissing is still rare but female-female and female-male social kissing is now so common that I’ve often seen it between previously unacquainted guests as they take their leave after a dinner party. This change in social custom must surely represent a bonanza of opportunity for the rhinovirus: even better than the handshake and nearly as good as the nose-rubbing of some tribal societies. I wonder whether the common cold was less prevalent in Nazi Germany when the handshake was replaced by the Heil Hitler salute, involving no physical contact at all. In societies where women get kissed twice as often as men (because men don’t kiss men), are they more vulnerable?

I don’t know how much research may have been done on such matters. But a good public health case can surely be made for discouraging handshaking and especially social kissing. How could we as individuals refuse a proffered handshake or cheek-kiss without giving offence? Maybe I’ll take up the Japanese custom of bowing. Anybody join me? Or how about that rather charming gesture, kissing the tips of your own fingers and projecting the virtual kiss through the air?

As you may have guessed, I have a cold. And I think I know who gave it to me.

13 comments on “Kissing Provides Cold Comfort

  • The infection needs to be carried to your nose or eye or mouth for maximum opportunity of your own infection so keep that shaken hand away from those. A kiss on the cheek and a shaken hand could be discretely washed to dilute the risk. Riskiest path is via your fingers straight into your nose. Old comforting habits are best set aside in the presence of rhino viruses.

    If, however, your spouse is suffering, it is your solemn duty to show solidarity and take it straight on the kisser.



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  • Sometimes when I see someone coming at me for handshake or that cheek kiss I wave my hands and say, “Oh noooo! I’m definitely coming down with a cold. It’s been going through our whole house!” The other person always displays an expression of alarm and backs off. This makes it seem like an act of high altruism on my part instead of implying that they are a germ infested health hazard. How many times I can get away with this with the same person is still unknown.



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  • Local Wal-Mart employed a guy to shake hands with customers and say welcome to wal-mart!. I steered a wide berth; so much for keeping communicable diseases at bay.

    Haven’t seen him recently – hope that was the first, and last day of that particular “job”.



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  • I have a cold, too. And I know exactly who gave it to me, too. Kissing dad on the forehead wasn’t such a good idea after all.
    They say that kissing most likely emerged from mouth-to-mouth feeding, so it must be a very powerful and long-standing social habit which will be hard to get rid of. But because repulsion to parasites and infections is also a very powerful instinct, perhaps lying and warning the potential “attacker” that you have a cold or herpes might help.
    Hot tea with lemon and raspberry jam, oranges, kiwifruit, birch sap might help with the cold 🙂 All rich in vitamin C. Propolis, too.



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  • The correct way to greet people without spreading germs is to walk into a room with your tail up and the tip pointing forward.

    If that doesn’t get attention they’re probably asleep so stick your snout in their open mouths and try and scent-mark their teeth.

    Sorry Richard, if you’re complaining that you have a cold because you’re getting all the good lovin there’s only so much sympathy I can offer.

    get well soon tho



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  • Any clue why the sickness is called a cold? Most folks would probably agree that getting sick isn’t very cool.

    Musing on the subject of social customs, I wonder if the genetic fitness of the French culture gains a slight benefit from their cheek to cheek greeting? In other words, if a despot ruled to exploit the public, I imagine the French custom would make it easier to pass clandestine information quickly between members of a revolt, in public, even in the presence of the enemy, by offering a second to whisper something in a friend’s ear, opposite the enemy watching . . . .

    In a world without the cold flu, Microsoft would probably genetically engineer it to frequently update humans with their latest marketing advertisements, enlightening us with a runny nose, raspy coughs, aches, and hallucinations of marquee banners popping up with the latest deals at the store.

    Hope your genetic update passes quickly.



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  • Good luck with avoiding handshakes! I don’t think it will work.

    https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn27070-after-handshakes-we-sniff-peoples-scent-on-our-hand/

    If true then it’s good news for other reasons. Basically that getting sick with a cold seems not to be something that needs to be avoided. Reason is that we have so many similar filthy habits that might spread these viruses around. If there’s a problem with getting colds easily then it may not be the prevalence of the virus or the means of transmission. The real issue is the way the immune system works, or fail.

    E.g. Very few people get gum infections from occasional encounters with sharp edges in foods. Maybe bits of gravel, splinters, shells, fish bones etc. An oral surgeon once told me that there just isn’t any significant infection risks involving gums. You barely need to bother sterilising dental instruments in the autoclave. (Probably a good thing given what is now known about autoclave maintenance and repair.) Same applies to the anus – given the proximity to smelly and toxic sewerage outfall, combined with the occasional rips and tears from unusually firm stools or remnants of indigestible materials. It is extremely uncommon for the anus to become infected, as otherwise would happen with just about any other part of the body coming into contact with these biohazards.

    There are also many people around who will tell you that they just never get a cold. And employer sick leave records can verify. Maybe they will get influenza once or twice in 10 years, but even then tend to only be affected for half a day or so. Might be worth following up on what they are doing. Presenteism or habitually avoiding social contact seems to be an unlikely strategy. Seems to be related to gut biota and diet.



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  • 11
    flyingfsck says:

    I live and work in Arabia. As you may know, women don’t get touched and wear protective clothing. Yet, they seem to get sick just as much as the men – if not more. So my guess is that rhinoviruses simply spread through the air and gets breathed in.



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  • In another life, I was a hematology technician. I worked in various hospital labs. I happened to work just prior to and into the “modern” era where mouth pipetting was banned and latex gloves were mandated.

    If you ever want to become aware of how often you go to your face, put on some latex gloves. It raises your awareness so much.

    Anyway there was this old old tech, “Mary”. She was pissed off about being told that he way she had been trained and worked for “35 goddamn years” was being overturned. So, she would put a pair of gloves on at the beginning of her shift and not take them off until the end. Now, that sounds compliant. But, it is insidious.

    She ate lunch, she went to the ladies room, she talked on the phone…etc… All with the latex gloves on that were in place while handling blood, urine, stool, sperm, and sputum samples. She claimed that over the years she had acquired immunity to every possible bug in the lab.

    Her eyes got real wide when I started telling her about evolution. Then when AIDS became part of the popular lexicon, she retired.



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  • In my daily routine as a general practitioner I rather successfully refuse handshakes referring to the risk of infections. At least 4 out of 5 patients appreciate breaking the habit. But raising awareness in the medical field is easier due to the special risk area with many ill patients.



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