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The common cold


January 2012

ColdEven if you haven’t had one yet, the likelihood is that you will suffer from a cold before the winter is out. And even if you have already suffered from a cold, this doesn’t mean you will be immune from developing another cold throughout the winter. There are more than 200 different viruses that cause colds, and even worse, there is no guaranteed way of knowing which ones will come along each year. You may have developed immunity to one type of virus that causes a cold but there is no inoculation you can take to give you immunity to all colds.

So, despite great medical advances, the common cold remains just that - very common and likely to affect every one of us this winter.

We were brought up in the era of “coughs and sneezes spread diseases” and indeed it is incredibly rude to cough or sneeze over someone else; but it is not as dangerous as perhaps we were led to believe in our childhood.

If you do expel droplets containing the cold virus into the air through coughing or sneezing, they may land in the nose or eye of someone else and start infection. However, far more often colds are spread via direct contact. The virus can be spread by the minutest of droplets; if you simply touch your nose or hanky when you have a cold, you will have gathered thousands of microscopic virus particles on your skin. When you touch something, many of these virus particles will transfer onto the object, perhaps a door or car handle, a coffee cup mug, shopping trolley or even another human hand. Then, another person simply touches the same area and then eventually touches their own nose and eyes, and the virus is transferred.

The cold virus, whatever type, likes warm, moist conditions to develop. The back of the throat and the nose are perfect warm, warm moist areas that will encourage the development and growth of a cold virus.

A major problem with the cold virus is its speed of development; it only takes a few hours from the arrival of a cold virus in your body for it to grow and release new virus particles. Symptoms also develop quickly and within 18 hours or so of touching something that had a cold virus on it, you can start developing the symptoms.

Most people are very familiar with the symptoms of a common cold; a runny nose, sneezing, dry or sore throat and perhaps a cough. Most of the symptoms are produced because the body releases chemicals in the blood to fight the cold virus and one action of these chemicals is to increase the production of mucous. Because of this, the nasal passages can become choked up and sore because of an excess of secretions.

A cold usually lasts a few days, around three days is the average, and after a week or ten days you should pretty well be over it.

What people want today is an instant remedy for colds, but sadly this is still not available. A cold is a virus and therefore does not react to antibiotics (antiobiotics work with bacterial infections, not a virus). The main recommendations today are still what they were in our childhood - to alleviate the symptoms. The good news is that medication has improved dramatically and so today, even with a bad cold, we can feel okay and not suffer too much.

There are lots of medications available across the counter in pharmacies which have been produced to treat specific or a mix of symptoms and it is easy to get advice across the counter on what is best for your condition.

Drinking enough is key, not alcohol which might slow your body’s recovery, but simple water or fruit drinks. It is important to keep hydrated when you have a cold and this will help you maximise your fight against the symptoms. Gargling in saltwater is a treatment that many say really does help; and inhalation (sitting over a tub of hot water with a towel over your head) can help hydrate your nasal passages and wash away virus particles and mucous.

To prevent colds, there are still many controversial ideas. Many people believe in vitamin C and orange juice; raw onions and broccoli are also said to help boost immunity. Echinacea has had a period of enthusiasm as a cold treatment but it is difficult to find conclusive evidence on its benefits - people’s ideas of different foods and products which can prevent a cold differ enormously.

Really, we have to accept that colds are a fact of life, and while there is no reason why we should have more colds in the winter than the summer, it is more likely as our immune system can be lower and also we are often crowded together in smaller heated areas where the cold virus can spread easily.


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