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The Making of Medicine

Your Nose Inhabitants May Affect Your Cold Symptoms

Interesting new research from our Ronald Turner, MD, has found a correlation between the bacteria that live in your nose and the type and severity of the cold symptoms you develop.

Looking at participants in our long-standing cold study, Dr. Turner and his colleagues identified six common mixes of nasal bacteria. Each was associated with differences in cold symptoms and their severity. For example, people who had a lot of Staphylococcus bacteria in their noses had more severe nasal symptoms than those with less.

“The first surprise was that you can kind of identify these different buckets that people kind of fit into, and then the fact that the buckets seem to have some impact on how you respond to the virus and how sick you get was also interesting,” Dr. Turner said. “There were effects on virus load and how much virus you shed in your nasal secretions. So the background microbiome, the background bacterial pattern in your nose, had influences on the way that you reacted to the virus and how sick you got.”

This isn’t to say that the bacteria are responsible for the differences in cold severity, he noted. What the researchers found was an association, not necessarily a causal relationship. That’s an important distinction that is often missed in news stories covering medical discoveries.

“It’s entirely possible that the fact that you have staph in your nose and you have more symptoms is not directly related,” Dr. Turner said. “It may well be that there’s some underlying host characteristic that makes you likely to have staph in your nose and also makes you more likely to become ill.”

The researchers wanted to see if altering the nasal microbiome might improve cold symptoms, so they gave participants a probiotic to drink. Unfortunately, the drink, rich in beneficial bacteria, didn’t make much difference in the partipants’ stomach microbiomes, much less their nose microbiomes.

It may be that administering a probiotic into the nose, such as through a spray, could have more effect, Dr. Turner said. But he is skeptical.

“It’s not going to be so simple, I don’t think, as saying, ‘OK, what happens if you give a probiotic?’” he said. “One of the things that would be interesting to ask, and this would be a completely different study, is, what happens if you give antibiotics? Can you change the nasal flora by giving antibiotic? And is that a good thing or is that a bad thing? Those are all unknowns.”

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