We’ve reached that time of year. The time of short days and dark nights, of warm jumpers and cosy fires. Before we know it, we’ll be tucking into our Christmas dinner and celebrating the New Year with Jools Holland. However much I love these winter-y delights, there’s no denying that the season brings more than just festive cheer. From a runny nose to fully fledged ‘flu, most of us are going to get ill this winter. With this in mind, I thought it would be a good opportunity to discuss what to expect from the common cold, how to battle it, and dispel a few common misconceptions. I often see patients with cold-like symptoms, and for the most part I can only offer advice and reassurance that they will get better. Sometimes the simple remedies really are the best medicine.
SO WHAT IS THE COMMON COLD?
This is the general term used to describe the symptoms of runny nose and congestion, sore throat and cough that most people will experience each year. An average adult can actually expect to have between two and four colds a year and a child even more. The common cold is caused by a virus, however, many different viruses can cause cold symptoms, making it almost impossible to find a cure.
HOW DO YOU CATCH IT?
There are a few ways you can catch a virus.
Firstly through direct contact with the virus: for example, the virus could be passed by skin-to-skin contact or by touching an object with the virus on. If you then touch your eyes or nose, you may well become infected and develop symptoms. With this in mind, I’d suggest you invest in a hand- sanitiser to try and keep your hands clean and virus free when you’re out and about, but it has been proven that washing your hands with soap and water is always the best.
Secondly, viruses can also be spread through air transmission, especially by coughing or sneezing. I was once told that when you sneeze the virus can travel up to 6 metres! So next time someone coughs or sneezes without covering their nose, a stern look or word may well be in order- rather you than me 🙂
HOW LONG CAN THE SYMPTOMS LAST FOR?
Once you’ve caught the virus, you’ll develop symptoms almost immediately, and should expect them to reach their peak by the second or third day. Most adults will take about a week to get better, whereas children and smokers can be unwell for longer periods. Unfortunately, the cough often persists for three weeks, which can be very frustrating.
CAN ANYTHING ELSE GO WRONG?
Most colds will get better by themselves with no complications, however, sometimes bacterial infections can take advantage or the virus can spread to other organs. This can lead to other illnesses such as sinusitis, pneumonia and very rarely, meningitis. You’re more likely to develop a complication if you’re elderly, have asthma or other lung disease or have a weakened immune system, for example if you’re having chemotherapy. Worrying signs to look out for are difficulty breathing, severe headache, and in children especially, noisy breathing, drooling and difficulty swallowing. If you’re worried that you may have developed one of these infections or just want reassurance, always see your Doctor for a review.
HOW CAN YOU FIGHT IT?
Unfortunately, there is no medicine that will cure the virus. This can often be very frustrating for patients, especially when they’ve be unwell for a few weeks and are at the end of their tether. Antibiotics unfortunately will not help, as they treat infections caused by bacteria. They’re more likely to give you tummy upset and make you feel more unwell than actually help your cold!
However, don’t despair, there are plenty of things that can help relieve the symptoms.
FLUIDS: when you have a fever you sweat more, so it’s important to drink plenty of fluids to stop you becoming dehydrated.
STEAM INHALATION: If you have nasal congestion or a chesty cough, inhaling steam can help loosen these secretions. If you’ve got access to a steam room at a gym, this would be the perfect excuse to pay a visit. If not, you can run a bath or shower to make the bathroom nice and steamy which should do the trick too.
REST: Your body needs to fight the infection itself, so you need to let it. You need to listen to your own body, and decide whether you’re well enough to go to work or school. Sometimes it’s better to have a day off to recover than under perform for several days because you’re not feeling well.
PARACETAMOL & IBUPROFEN: these over-the-counter medications are great for fever, muscle pains and headache, and are safe to use together.
NASAL DECONGESTANTS: if your nose is really blocked you can buy an over-the-counter nasal decongestant which can help with breathing, and therefore, sleep!
DO SUPPLEMENTS HELP CURE THE COMMON COLD?
Vitamin C and zinc are often recommended to help battle colds. Unfortunately, the most recent evidence has not shown them to be helpful. Similarly there is little evidence to support echinacea or Chinese herbal medicines. It is important to remember, however, that as Doctors we can only recommend treatments with a strong evidence base. These supplements are unlikely to cause you harm, and if you personally find them beneficial, there is no reason for you not to take them.They certainly won’t make you any worse.
CAN I STILL RUN WHEN I HAVE A COLD?
Considering this is a running blog, I thought I should I cover this, as I know a lot of you will ask this question when you’re unwell. In running magazines and on social media, I’ve often read that if the symptoms are above the neck it’s OK to run and if they’re below the neck, you should rest. I’m not sure where this advice came from, but I know it’s a rule many people follow. The answer is, there is no right answer. Everyone is different and you need to listen to your own body. I think if you’re honest with yourself you know whether you’re too unwell to run or not. Remember, it’s better to miss one or two runs and allow your body to recover fully, than push through and end up feeling more unwell.
Hopefully this has been a useful read, and will help you fight that pesky cold! Remember, you can always see your GP if you’re worried it’s something more serious or just want a check up, that’s what we’re there for!
If you have any questions, please feel free to get in touch, or comment below,
The data and information from this post wastaken from the current NICE guidelines on the common cold which were last revised in 2011. These guidelines are used by practicing clinicians in the UK, and provide the foundation of our practice.