How to avoid a cold? And is the flu jab worth getting?

From vitamin supplements to catching a cold outside, one of the leading experts on the common cold gives his top tips and advice for the winter

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What is the best way to avoid a cold?

There’s only one sure way to avoid a cold - and that’s to avoid all human contact, and to avoid all surfaces touched by all human beings. So become a hermit basically.

Will we ever have a cure?

The first thing to realise that it’s not a single disease. The symptoms are caused by six or seven different groups of viruses with about 200 viruses amongst those groups. It’s like trying to get a cure for all those things that cause red spots on the skin. The viruses are evolving much quicker than we are.

Which everyday items contain a lot of germs?

Any commonly touched surface. Not your toilet seat - it’s the handles on public buildings, or any public space.

Are antibacterial gels or wipes worth using?

The best thing is to wash your hands in water and soap. But if not, you can use the alcohol based or acidic wipes when coming out of public areas, or when you get home. That goes for avoiding tummy upsets as well -  such as the norovirus.  

Is a flu jab worth getting?

Definitely. I’ve had it for the last 15 years. If you’re in a busy job or you can’t afford to have time off, it’s well worth having. The flu jab doesn’t protect you against all flu influenzas, but you are protected against the common strains. If you’re in the at risk group it could be a life saver. If you are 65 or over, pregnant, or have various medical conditions, it’s free with the NHS – see here for more information.

Should we take vitamin supplements?

Only if you’re short of vitamins. Most of us are getting enough, if you have reasonably balanced diet. If you live on processed food, then maybe take them.

Are there are homeopathic remedies that have been proven to work?

I’m very doubtful about homeopathy; I don’t believe that it's within the realms of science, it’s more in the realms of belief. It probably has a very good placebo effect for those who believe. Herbal medicines are different, however. There is some evidence to show Pelargonium and Echinacea can reduce the severity of common colds, but it’s not black and white, and if those worked so well they'd be the cure. Everyone’s immune system is different. They might not work for everyone but they might work for you, so are worth trying.

Is cough medicine worth taking?

They do work, but not much better than a hot drink. I’d suggest having a hot blackcurrent cordial, or a spicy drink like ginger, or hot honey and lemon. You can have it as many times are you want without overdosing, or if you're pregnant or want to give it to a child. Cough medicines don’t reduce coughing that much, you should still be able to cough up phlegm. Coughs can last for months and still not be too serious.

Should you go to the doctor if you think you have flu?

No. They can’t do anything for you. Only visit a doctor if you’re having difficulty breathing or swallowing, or coughing up blood. You can treat it with painkillers, like paracetamol or ibuprofen, and the best thing is to rest.

Is there any truth in catching a cold outside?

It’s controversial, but I do believe there is truth in that folk law, and I’ve supported it in the past. We did a study on students dipping their feet into cold water, and those chilled got more cold symptoms.

Professor Ronald Eccles is director at the Common Cold Centre, Cardiff School of Biosciences, Cardiff University

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