Keeping out the cold this winter

“There’s a lot of it about” is a phrase you are going to hear this and, I suspect, every other winter!

As doctors, we would love to be able to prevent all of the coughs, headaches, sore throats and sickness  that inevitably accompany a shift in season. But bugs are clever things that change with new strains appearing each year. That is why we sometimes hold back on prescribing antibiotics – because some of those bacteria mutate so successfully that they actually become resistant to those kinds of drugs.

The most likely viral infection you will pick-up is a cold, often preceded with the word “common” because we all seem to get one, myself included!

It is important to recognise the difference between a cold and a more serious condition such as flu.

Often accompanied by sneezing and that bunged-up feeling, a cold is a mild viral infection of the nose, throat, sinuses and upper airways. Rest, plenty of fluids and over-the-counter pain relief from your chemist, will see a cold off quickly. You should only visit your GP if your symptoms include fever, muscle pain or a severe headache.

Colds of course are irritating especially for busy people and upsetting for the vulnerable; and I am often asked how to prevent them. Supplements such as Zinc, Vitamin C tablets and Echinacea are often touted as cold preventers. While they all give your immune system a boost, there is no scientific evidence to show they significantly reduce your chances of catching a cold.

Older people often refer to a cold as, “a chill” – largely based on the myth that you can catch one by walking in the cold and wet. This is simply not true and I wouldn’t want to prevent someone from taking a brisk healthy winter stroll.

There is research to show that the flu vaccine prevents colds in certain cases. Even when  it doesn’t, it guards against potentially dangerous diseases including swine flu and is an absolute must for people with long-term health conditions such as COPD. We do not want flu to become something even more serious such as pneumonia.

What we are sure of, is that people can prevent the spread of the common cold through basic hygiene.  Viruses are passed from one person to the next through tiny droplets of mucus that are coughed or sneezed out into the air. If you are unfortunate enough to have a cold, keep your hands clean and catch a sneeze in a handkerchief and then – bin that handkerchief. It’s better still if you can rest up at home, then you can’t infect others and your recovery will be a lot quicker.

Finally, researchers have again said that a healthier diet and more exercise can give you more than a sniff of a chance of both preventing colds and speeding up your healing process!