The average adult gets two to five colds a year. Children suffer the worst, with seven to 10 a year. The news today is that scientists may in the near future be able to cure colds and other viruses. But for now, only the immune system can cure a cold and in most cases, it takes four to seven days. Conventional medicines might provide relief from symptoms, but don’t work against the virus or help our immune system throw off the infection. Some don’t even do that. Standard cough medicines, for instance, have been found to be no better than placebo. Some doctors say suppressing coughs can be a bad thing since they are nature’s way of getting rid of respiratory debris. The good news is, you can take action to help your cold without even going out.
“The common cold is a collection of different viruses and your immune system’s response to them causes the symptoms of inflamed nasal passage and lining of the sinuses – which causes sneezing, runny nose and sore eyes,” explains Professor Steve Field, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners. “The best way to reduce this inflammation is to keep the nasal passages clear. Steam is wonderful at achieving this.”
Put a towel over your head and inhale steam from a bowl of boiling water, ideally using drops of a plant oil such as eucalyptus or olbas oil for added relief. “Or take a nice hot shower with plenty of steam or sit in a really steamy bathroom – particularly good for children,” adds Professor Field.
Have a hot drink
Hot drinks work wonders, says Professor Ron Eccles, director of the Common Cold Research Centre at Cardiff University. One study found the effects of a hot fruit drink on nasal airflow and common cold and flu symptoms were surprisingly positive. “The hot drink provided immediate and sustained relief from symptoms of runny nose, cough, sneezing, sore throat, chilliness and tiredness,” he says.
Drinks with slightly bitter flavours are particularly beneficial. Many doctors suggest hot water with honey (a mild antiseptic), grated ginger (anti-inflammatory) and fresh lemon (tastes nice but the claim that vitamin C can cure colds is still unproven).
Eat chicken soup – or some curry
The brothy goodness of home-made soup has everything going for it, particularly if it’s chicken. It flushes out the nasal passages with its aromatic steaming and offers hydration and comfort.
There are also claims that chicken has anti-viral properties, particularly if the skin is left in, and in 2000, scientists at the University of Nebraska Medical Centre in Omaha found that some components of chicken soup inhibit neutrophil migration, which may have an anti-inflammatory effect that could perhaps lead to a temporary easing of the symptoms of illness.
A cold is a good excuse for a hot curry, says Professor Eccles. “Spicy food and drink promotes salivation and airway mucus secretions that soothe coughs and sore throats,” he explains.
Take it easy
Take one or preferably two days away from the office, insists Dr Beata O’Donoghue, sleep consultant at the London Clinic. You will save others from your germs and a cold can be the body’s way of telling us to take a break. She says: “Listen to your body. We do not repair ourselves during wakefulness, but during sleep.” Professor Field agrees: “With any virus that involves inflammation, even light exercise can be harmful, especially as we get older.”
“When the body is fighting infection, it becomes dehydrated,” says Dr Rob Hicks, GP and author of Old-fashioned Remedies From Arsenic to Gin. “You need plenty of fluids.” Provided it’s not alcohol anything palatable is acceptable, says Hicks. Others disagree. Soft drinks contain high levels of sugar, which means they are absorbed much more slowly than water so they don’t hydrate the body as quickly. Really high-sugar drinks cause a rapid rise in blood sugar level, followed by a sudden dip, making you feel worse.
By the time you feel thirsty, dehydration has set in – so drink regularly.
Raid your store cupboard
“Nutrients with potential immune-boosting properties include vitamin A (in eggs, milk and orange fruit and vegetables such as carrots and apricots), vitamin E (nuts, grains, vegetable oils and wheatgerm) and selenium (in brazil nuts, seafood, meat, and poultry),” says Sara Stanner of the Nutrition Society. And try to eat as much garlic as possible because of its antimicrobial action.
Everyday life pressures can make you more susceptible, says Professor Eccles: “Experiments on volunteers show they are more likely to become infected if they have recently suffered problems.” Stress has long been associated with the suppression of general resistance to infection.
Wrap up warm
“Granny was right as far as wrapping up warm is concerned, in the prevention of colds,” says Dr Rob Hicks. “When the nostrils get cold, the immune system functions less efficiently. And if your temperature falls, your immune system is not as efficient.”
You could also try...
* Blowing your nose regularly rather than sniffing the mucus back into your head. Ideally, press a finger over one nostril while you blow gently to clear the other.
* Gargling can moisten a sore throat to bring temporary relief. Try a teaspoon of salt dissolved in warm water, four times daily. Or use honey, popular in folk medicine.
* Sleeping with an extra pillow will help with the drainage of nasal passages.