The common cold: sorting fact from fiction

10 January 2019 . United Kingdom

As the temperature plummets, many tips are often shared on how to avoid getting sick during the colder months. To help sort fact from fiction, Dr Luke Powles, Associate Clinical Director at Bupa UK, answers some of the most common questions people ask him and gives his advice on how to avoid getting sick this winter.
Woman dressed for winter

Does the cold weather increase my chances of getting sick?

It may come as a surprise, but the common cold isn’t actually caused by the temperature or seasons at all. It’s caused by the spread of cold viruses.

Anecdotally I do see more people catching a cold in the winter months, but this may be because we tend to be around others indoors more when it’s cold making it easier for viruses to spread.

Will taking vitamins such as Echinacea and Vitamin C stop me getting sick?

While there’s no scientific proof to say that these supplements can reduce your risk of getting sick or ease your symptoms, there’s no harm in taking them. It may just be a placebo effect, but if you feel they are helping there’s no reason why you shouldn’t keep taking them.

Can stress increase your chances of getting sick?

Yes, when you’re stressed, your body produces a hormone called cortisol. This stress hormone can supress your immune system, which can increase your chances of getting sick.

Can exercise reduce my risk of catching a cold?

Exercise and meditation can increase your ‘feel-good’ hormones known as endorphins. They can also help you get a good night’s sleep and reduce stress levels – all things that help manage levels in your body, which can supress your immune system and put you at a higher risk of getting sick.

If I drink too much alcohol, am I more at risk of getting sick?

While there isn’t a direct link between drinking alcohol and getting sick, anecdotally I’ve found many of my patients tend to have poor sleep after a night out drinking. They also tend to make poor food choices, opting for an unhealthy snack over a balanced meal, and they can feel tired the day after drinking. All of this can elevate your stress hormone, cortisol, which can supress your immune system and increase your chances of getting sick.

Can a balanced diet help my body fight off sickness?

A well-balanced health diet provides your body with the fuel it needs to function and fight off illness. While there aren’t any specific foods you should be eating to help increase your immune system, we know that a healthy diet does provide your body with the energy and nutrients you need to keep well.

How do I know if it’s just a common cold or something worse?

Symptoms related to the cold such as coughs, sore throats and ear aches can take some time to settle. Coughs can last up to three weeks, sore throats up to a week, and earaches will normally resolve on their own by three or four days. If you start to experience muscle or body aches you may have caught the flu.

Usually, the symptoms of a common cold will pass within a week or two (the average length is 10 days). However, if your symptoms linger on for longer than that it’s important to see your doctor to see what’s causing you to be unwell and rule out anything more serious.

Other warning signs that your common cold could be something else include your symptoms getting worse, you have a high temperature that’s not coming down, you become very drowsy, you find it hard to breathe or your breathing becomes noisy, you stop passing urine regularly, worsening headache or you develop chest pain.

How do I treat my cold?

To treat a common cold, drink plenty of water, gargle with salt water to help a sore throat, and try nasal decongestant drops or sprays to clear up congestion in the nose. Nasal decongestants should not be used for more than five days as they can have the reverse effect if overused. Taking over the counter medications like paracetamol, ibuprofen or aspirin can help manage any pain and fever you may have.

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