So you’ve got a cold – nothing you can do about it, right? From the truth about vitamin C to the power of your mood, here’s the latest science to help you get well soon
At this time of year the common cold is, er, pretty common, and we’re all in the firing line. Most of us will have at least two colds this year – snotty ordeals that turn us into sniffling zombies clutching vials of Olbas Oil and saying things like, ‘My hair hurts.’
There are 200 different types of the common cold virus. The most prevalent ones are rhinoviruses, closely followed by coronaviruses, adenoviruses and coxsackieviruses. ‘When these viruses get into your nose, they irritate the lining, causing it to produce mucus to try to expel the bad stuff,’ says clinical scientist Professor Peter Openshaw. ‘The virus sticks to the cells in the nose then ruptures, travelling to the airways and other parts of the upper respiratory tract, including the throat.’
So what can we do to protect ourselves? Well, as the saying goes, prevention is better than cure. ‘Alcohol-based hand sanitisers are more effective than you think,’ says Dr Adam Simon, GP and medical officer at Pushdoctor.co.uk. ‘Washing your hands regularly is always a good idea but be aware that antibacterial soaps don’t kill viruses and as such won’t prevent the spread of colds.’ Office martyrdom doesn’t help, either.
‘The best way to prevent a cold outbreak is for the person who has the virus to stay at home and rest.’ But there is another way to get ahead of the game in the face of all these airborne contagions – know your facts.
Is a cold the same as the flu?
Colds and flu are both caused by viruses, but it’s quite difficult for doctors to determine which one we are suffering from. The term ‘influenza-like illness’ or ‘ILI’ is, in medical settings, also used for colds, especially when a fever is present. Both viruses attack the cells of the adenoids at the back of your throat, spreading to cells in the rest of the upper respiratory tract (ie, the nose, throat, pharynx and larynx).
‘If you have more severe symptoms, a fever of 39.5 and you’re aching all over, it’s more likely that you have got an influenza,’ says Sebastian Johnston, professor of respiratory medicine and allergy at Imperial College London. ‘But influenza only really happens during annual influenza epidemics – we normally have one every year [from October to May], they vary in severity and will last six to eight weeks in more highly populated parts of the country before spreading.’
Currently, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends the flu jab for pregnant women, health workers, people over 65 (or under five) and those with chronic health conditions. But it is available for everyone (ask your GP) and is the only reliable protection.
Can common colds be spread by kissing?
True, but more than that, you don’t need to kiss or even touch a stranger to pick up the germs. ‘The virus particles of the common cold are spread through the small droplets of saliva in the air when someone with the infection coughs, sneezes or even laughs or talks,’ says GP Dr Sarah Brewer.
‘The particles are propelled at an estimated speed of around 100mph and can travel for many metres [recent research* shows that a single cough would fill about three quarters of a two-litre bottle with air containing 3,000 droplets of potentially infectious saliva]. They may then enter a nearby person’s body through the eyes, nose or mouth.’ In addition, germs from their hands linger long after they’ve gone, contaminating surfaces such as door handles, escalators and keyboards on which the virus is able to survive.
Does Vitamin C help prevent colds?
Not so much. ‘Research shows that vitamin C is only really effective in the prevention of colds when the human body is under significant stress – for example in soldiers or long-distance runners,’ says Dr Ashton Harper, medical advisor for pharmaceutical company Protexin. Professor Openshaw agrees. ‘The vitamin C myth really doesn’t have a good scientific basis,’ he says. ‘There’s no harm in it, but it is not a cure.’
In fact, much on offer at your local pharmacist will have a negligible effect. ‘There’s no good evidence, for example, that cough medicine works,’ says Dr Davina Deniszczyc, medical executive director at Nuffield Health. ‘But, interestingly, in clinical studies, placebos (sugar pills) work really well.’ Indeed, research from the University of Wisconsin found that when patients received a placebo pill that they believed contained echinacea, their illnesses were substantively shorter and less severe. So whatever your medicine of choice, if it’s safe and seems to work for you, stick with it.
Is the number of colds you get down to genetics?
Partly true. ‘We all have what we call innate immune systems, which protect us against viruses we’ve never seen before,’ says Professor Johnston. ‘We also have acquired immunity, where our bodies “learn” from infections we’ve seen previously and have immunity to them [such as mumps or chickenpox].’ The number of colds we get depends on how strong both these immune systems are. ‘People vary depending on their genetic make-up and there are at least 40 genes found to control our immune defences,’ adds Professor Openshaw. ‘So you may simply be lucky or unlucky in terms of the pattern you’ve inherited.’
Does being miserable make you more susceptible to the sniffles?
This one’s actually true. ‘Maintaining a positive mental attitude can help prevent illness,’ says Justin Jones, national physiology manager at Nuffield Health. ‘This is because we release different hormones depending on our outlook. Thinking positively has been proven to release the immune-boosting hormone DHEA, while thinking negatively releases the immune-suppressing hormone cortisol.’ So being upbeat can help you stay healthy.
Professor Openshaw agrees there’s some science behind this idea. ‘One of the last studies that was ever done at the Common Cold Research Unit in Salisbury before it closed showed that if people feel miserable and out of control in their lives then they are more likely to be infected by a standard dose of common cold virus.’ So chin up, and look on the bright side, you will be doing your nose a favour.
The cold remedies that actually work (according to the experts)
A study by Helsinki University found zinc lozenges can shorten a cold by about four days. ‘Don’t exceed 100mg of elemental zinc per day,’ says lead author Dr Harri Hemila. Nature’s Way Zinc Lozenges (£2.93 for 60, Iherb.com)
It turns out that yoghurt is the best thing to eat for breakfast if you want to avoid catching the common cold, as yoghurts are probiotic foods. ‘The majority of our immune system is in our gut,’ says Dr Harper. ‘Probiotics have been shown to significantly reduce the severity of cold symptoms.’ Choose a high- quality multi-strain product such as Bio-Kult Advanced Formula Probiotics (£8.99 for 30, Bio-kult.com).
‘The last thing you will feel like doing when you have a cold is exercising, but a study has shown that going on a 45-minute walk when you don’t normally do much exercise boosts your immune system. The effect can last for up to three hours,’ says Dr Sohere Roked.
This one’s still up for debate, but recent research by Professor Johnston at the Royal Society of Medicine showed echinacea reduces (by about 50 per cent) recurrent respiratory tract infections. A Vogel Echinaforce Hot Drink (£9.99, Avogel.co.uk)
‘Nothing can prevent a cold, so it’s a matter of symptom relief,’ says Professor Johnston. A Southampton University study found paracetamol was superior to ibuprofen when it comes to treating colds. Paracetamol (39p for 16, Superdrug.com).
Drink plenty of fluids
‘Drink plenty of fluids, as it’s easy to get dehydrated when you’re ill due to fluid loss caused by having a high temperature and increased nasal secretions,’ says Angela Chalmers.’
Eat less sugar
‘Avoid sugar, as it competes with vitamin C, which is good for the immune system,’ says Alison Cullen. ‘If you have lots of sugar, you undermine your immune system.’
‘A lot of people are deficient in vitamin D in the UK and there’s evidence boosting it can help resistance to infection,’ says Professor Johnston. Research shows in order to activate an immune response, vitamin D must kick-start T cells in our body, which can attack and neutralise any threat. ImmiFlex (£13.39 for 30, Nutritioncentre.co.uk)
*Study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Drink green tea
‘Try drinking green tea,’ says Alison Cullen. ‘It’s rich in many chemicals that have been shown to have health-protective properties.’
Use vapour rub
‘Put vapour rub on the soles of your feet and wear socks on top,’ says Angela Chalmers. ‘Many people swear by this to help relieve a cough at night.’
Incorporate beta glutens into your diet
‘Having beta glucans in your diet – found in baker’s yeast, oats, rye, barley, wheat and shiitake mushrooms – or in supplement form on a daily basis has been shown to reduce both bacterial infections and viruses. And, if taken when unwell, beta glucans can actually shorten the length of the illness,’ says Dr Sohere Roked. Check out our list of immune-boosting foods to add to your diet.
Add lysine into your diet
‘Get plenty of lysine, an essential amino acid that works to boost the immune system and helps stimulate the body’s own antibodies to fight illness,’ says Dr Sohere Roked. ‘It’s found in plain yoghurt and skimmed milk, apricots, dried apples and mangos, and fish.’
‘You could also try sleeping with the window open, as germs and viruses can breed more quickly in warm temperatures,’ says Angela Chalmers. ‘It’s a myth that cold weather causes a cold, and keeping fresh air circulating will help create a healthier sleeping environment.’
‘Steam inhalation may sound old-fashioned, but it’s a powerful way to help clear mucus and soothe irritated airways,’ says Angela Chalmers.
Sleep with an extra pillow
‘When you have a cold, sleep with an extra pillow, as this will help with the drainage of nasal passages,’ says Boots pharmacist Angela Chalmers.
Use a warm compress
‘Try a warm compress,’ says Dr Laura Ginesi. ‘A hot flannel, wrung out and placed on your forehead and over the bridge of your nose, may help to relieve some of the pressure from blocked sinuses.’
Get enough sleep
‘Try to get enough rest,’ says Dr Annabel Bentley. ‘It can help you get over the worst.’
By Lizzie Pook / @LizziePook