Want to avoid colds? Don’t share a thermometer with snotty people
Unless you live in a biohazard suit it’s impossible to avoid the common cold. It is estimated that adults suffer from two to five colds a year, or 200 during the average lifetime. You contract many more than that, but the immune system fights off the majority of infections. When one of them manages to sneak past your body’s defences it inflicts a sore throat, blocked nose, coughs and, in the case of flu, high fever and muscle pains.
Is it a cold or flu?
Both the common cold and flu are viral infections and symptoms do overlap. The flu tends to start quickly and is far more severe than a cold, confining sufferers to bed for several days and leaving them fatigued for two to three weeks. It can lead to complications such as pneumonia and can even prove fatal, especially in the young, old or frail.
Where do they come from?
Cold viruses thrive in the close confines of overcrowded cities. But despite this, common cold viruses shouldn’t be very contagious because the virus has to come into direct contact with your nose, mouth or eyes. In reality cramped modern living causes us to pick up these viruses all too easily. Cold and flu viruses are spread by droplets of mucus that are coughed or sneezed out or passed on by infected fingers. When we blow our nose droplets of contaminated mucus fall on our hands and when we touch objects such as door handles or light switches we infect that surface ready for the next victim to come along. Colds are more common in winter and scientists at the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University say the reason for the high incidence of colds during winter months is due to the cold climate constricting the blood vessels in the nose, which appears to lower resistance to infection.
What do they do to you?
The virus attacks the cells lining the nose first, killing them and releasing more viruses before moving onto other cells. The cycle repeats until there are millions of dead cells in the nose and throat and you’ve got the beginnings of a cold.
The symptoms you experience aren’t caused by the virus itself, but are side effects of your body’s fight against the infection. White blood cells release chemicals called cytomkines that are carried by the blood to the brain and trigger fatigue, headaches and muscle pains. This is the body’s unsubtle way of telling us to rest. The body produces excess mucus in order to flush out the virus.
Why is there no cure?
The problem with cold viruses is that there are so many of them, with over 200 known strains and many more unidentified ones floating about. There are only three flu viruses but their chameleon-like nature has prevented scientists from coming up with a cure.
How to evade infection
It’s impossible to escape ever getting a cold, but you can try and reduce the risk by boosting your immune system. Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables and take vitamin C and Echinacea supplements when you feel that familiar tingle in the nose. This may not stop a cold, but it could lessen its severity. There’s evidence to suggest stress can impact on the immune system and increase your susceptibility to cold and flu viruses.
How to fight back
Your doctor can’t help unless the flu is even worse than usual, in which case it’s vital to seek medical help. Otherwise get bed rest, take paracetamol to keep your temperature down and drink plenty of hot, sweet drinks.