100 Days of Sniffling

The first sign of doom came in February, when I refused to shake a man’s hand at a meeting.

“I’ve come down with a wicked cold,” I demurred. “I shouldn’t even be here.”

The man nodded knowingly and cupped his hand over his face, fingers spread, like a muzzle.

“Right here? All in your head and nose, right? Starts out with a scratchy throat, turns into a head cold pretty fast but never seems to move.”

“That’s it,” I said.

“Body aches? Chills? Low fever?”

“Exactly.”

“Ugh,” he sighed. “I’ve got it too. You keep thinking it’s gone and then, bam! You wake up in the morning and it’s started all over again.”

The man knew what he was talking about. For the next week and a half, the cold, or whatever it was, remained lodged in my sinuses, threatening to explode into bronchial pathways and paralyze delicate cilia. I loaded up on supplements with military names like Zinc Force and ImmunDefense, went to bed at 10, napped at 4. It abated, only to come marching back, invigorated.

Then came the uncontrollable sneezing fits timed punctually to tricky phone conversations, the attractive crust of nostril snot, the constantly mutating trickle of phlegm that forced me to give away chamber-music tickets lest I be counted among the coarse Angelenos who cough obsessively in concert halls.

Two more rounds of reprieves and relapses later, I ran into my neighbor Mara on the street in Venice. Having kids in school, Mara knows what’s going around. Being Canadian, she also knows the name for each peculiar ailment.

Sniffling, I listed my symptoms.

Mara looked grave.

“Uh-oh,” she said. “It sounds like you’ve got the 100-day flu.”

“The 100-day flu?”

“Yeah, that’s what they’re calling it. They say it hangs on for three months or more. Be careful.”

It was day 21. I would be sick, then, through Oscar parties, St. Paddy’s Day, a long-planned trip to London. I wondered how I would mingle undetected among a vulnerable public.

“I have the 100-day flu,” I warned a friend who wanted me to show up early for a dinner party to help her chop the green beans.

“Oh, that. Right in the nose and head. Keeps coming back.”

“That’s it.”

“I’ve had it for two months. Can you still be here at 2?”

Over at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, Dr. David Dassey hadn’t heard of anything called the 100-day flu until he Googled it. “Then I also found references to the 100-day cough and the 100-day cold,” he said. Funnily enough, he seemed to be having his own respiratory issues, some of which sounded similar to mine.

“But it’s not the flu,” said the doctor, who works in the county’s Acute Communicable Diseases Department. “The problem is my grapefruit tree. Because we’ve been having weird weather in Los Angeles, a lot of things are blooming early. So a lot of what people might be experiencing has to do with allergies to the pollen.”

It gets confusing, Dassey said, diagnosing sniffles. “So many things can affect the sinuses and upper airways and medium airways and lungs that it may be hard to tell where the flu ends and a constellation of other respiratory irritants begins.”

A bad cold could trigger asthma, which Dassey said has been on the rise in his 25 years of practice, despite local air that by most standards has been steadily improving.

“Kids used to have it and grow out of asthma,” he said. “Now people aren’t growing out of it, and to make it worse, adults are coming down with it.”

It could also hatch a case of lingering pertussis — the “P” in the DPT booster shots kids get, but adults almost never do. “It’s a hacking, deep cough, and it often goes into spasms,” the doctor said. “It usually lasts longer than 15 days, so people with a 100-day cough may actually have pertussis.” (Pertussis is highly contagious, so cover your mouth.)

Or it could be a simple bacterial infection, easily remedied with a course of antibiotics. “That’s a well-recognized phenomenon,” Dassey said.

But — say it again — don’t take antibiotics unless you’re sure it’s bacteria. Antibiotics don’t work on viruses.

Annoying as they are, none of the 100-day ailments will kill you, Dassey said. “The vast majority of upper-respiratory viral infections are irritating, but not deadly.” Like any good public-health official, however, he disdains the European habit of kissing total strangers and even believes the time may have come to drop the handshake.

“There was a movement that some people took up during the SARS epidemic to extend your right elbow,” he said. “When was the last time you put your elbow in your nose? You can’t do that, so it probably doesn’t have much goop on it.

“There’s a human need to touch other people when you meet them,” he admitted. “But if you have to prove you’re a decent person by touching someone, rub elbows.”