Return of the common cold: Why symptoms may feel worse this year and how to protect against it

After months of lockdown, the common cold has returned with a vengeance. Here’s how to tackle it

Joanna Whitehead
Friday 24 September 2021 15:47 BST
<p>Struggling with a cold? You’re not alone</p>

Struggling with a cold? You’re not alone

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Struggling with a seasonal sniffle? You’re not alone. Coughs, sneezes and colds are on the rise once again, with reports of an autumn cold sweeping the nation continuing to grow.

While social media users have complained of experiencing the “worst cold ever”, Public Health England have confirmed that there is no single new strain of the virus circulating; rather, a “culmination” of bugs, which they say is to be expected as we approach winter and people emerge from lockdown.

Suggestions that an increase in particularly persistent bugs may be related to reduced immunity due to excessive time indoors and lifting lockdown restrictions may not be unfounded.

Dr Jim Brannigan, an academic at the University of York who has worked on lab-testing a molecule that can combat the common cold virus, tells The Independent: “It’s likely that easing social restrictions have led to a perceived increase in cases of respiratory viral infections. Cold and flu numbers were low during lockdown and will probably rise sharply as people mix at gatherings, on public transport and at work.”

Elsewhere, Professor Anthony Harnden, the deputy chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), warned that low flu immunity “could be potentially a bigger problem this winter than Covid”. He said: “We’ve had a very, very low prevalence of flu for the last few years, particularly virtually [sic] nil during lockdown, and we do know that when flu has been circulating in very low numbers immunity drops in the population, and it comes back to bite us.”

The return of the common cold

Dr Elly Gaunt, research fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute, explains why we are always susceptible to colds.

“Typically, adults catch between two and five colds a year,” she tells The Independent. “These are caused by over a hundred different types of viruses – about 50 per cent are rhinoviruses, and there are four coronaviruses that cause the common cold. If you have had one type of common cold virus, the immune response that targets that virus will not protect you from the other types of common cold virus, which is why we are always susceptible to colds. As we have skipped a year of common colds, the pool of viruses we are susceptible to will be a bit bigger, but the symptoms will be the same.”

Scientists and medical professionals are broadly united in the belief that a strong immune system helps our bodies fight off infections. While some people may have a genetic ability to generate antibodies against certain viruses, it’s down to most of us to practice healthy habits to boost our immunity.

Here are some ways to boost our immunity and fight off this year’s season cold.

Take a vitamin D supplement

At the peak of the pandemic, vitamin D was hailed as a wonder drug that could minimise a person’s chances of contracting Covid-19. Despite this, scientists analysing the records of more than 400,000 patients found “no evidence” to support the suggestion that higher levels of vitamin D improved coronavirus outcomes.

Vitamin D’s benefit on the immune system more generally cannot be so easily dismissed, however. A 2017 study published in the British Medical Journal that analysed over 10,000 patients found that individuals with low vitamin D levels were more likely to develop upper respiratory tract infections than those with sufficient levels.

Dr Ross Walton, cellular immunologist and founder of A-IR Clinical Research, tells The Independent: “A growing body of scientific literature supports maintenance of vitamin D levels to support the immune system, particularly during the darker winter when there is a lack of sunshine, so enhanced dietary or supplement intake is an option which could provide benefit.”

Stay at home if you’re feeling sick

If you suspect that you’re coming down with something, avoid the temptation to play martyr and go into work. If possible, work from home when you’re feeling sick. Your colleagues won’t thank you for sharing your germs and potentially infecting them, making home the best place to be.

“These viruses typically circulate in winter, spreading through coughs and sneezes,” says Dr Gaunt. “As people gather indoors, this aids virus transmission. If you do get sick, don’t go in to work – these viruses are highly infectious, and it could be caused by SARS-CoV-2 – the symptoms may be indistinguishable.”

Exercise regularly

The benefits of staying active for health are well-documented. Writing for The Independent, James Turner and John P Campbell from the University of Bath’s department of health, state that exercise may help the immune system function better. For example, one line of defence the immune system activates is to stop pathogens like viruses from entering the body via the skin. Research has shown that skin wound healing is fasting in people who exercise regularly, compared with sedentary people, reducing the risk of bacteria entering the body. Even gentle exercise can improve the functionality of our immune systems.

Stop touching your mouth, eyes and nose

Biting your nails, retouching your eye makeup or even picking your nose are all extremely relatable habits for many of us. They’re also a surefire way to transfer bugs into your system. “These are bad habits for many people,” says Robert Schwartz, chairman of family medicine at the University of Miami School of Medicine. “But they are the main way a virus gets into your system, via the oral and respiratory nasal route.” With this in mind, try and be more conscious of keeping your hands still. Items, such as mobile phones, are teeming with germs, so make sure you disinfect these regularly. And it’s no bad thing to consider adopting some of the thorough hand-washing regimes introduced during the first wave of the pandemic.

It’s too late - I’ve got the lurgy. Now what?

If your body’s already battling with a rogue bug, the best advice is to hunker down and get some rest. Dr Walton tells The Independent: “Generally it is advised to get plenty of rest and sleep, keep warm and drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration,” he says.” Take paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve muscular aches or to lower a temperature.” If you’ve got a blocked nose, consider a decongestant. While you may not feel like eating, it’s important that you continue to eat nutritious food - your immune system needs energy and nutrients to do its job and get you back up and running again.

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