For something as common as, well, the common cold, there are a lot of myths about what can help you – and what can’t…
If you have a high temperature, it’s the flu
Myth: Colds can sometimes cause a high temperature, although it’s usually short-lived and not above 38oC. However, sweats and chills normally indicate flu.
It’s pointless to avoid someone with a cold or flu. You’ll get it anyway
Myth: Flu and colds are highly contagious, spread by air and direct contact, but you can stay germ-free by avoiding sufferers or by both practising good hygiene:
• Clean hands and high-contact surfaces regularly (e.g. door handles, touchscreens), especially after touching the nose or mouth.
• Don’t share cutlery, cups or towels.
• Ensure the contagious person has tissues nearby to catch coughs and sneezes, and bin them immediately. They should use the ’vampire’ cough (into the inside of their elbow) if they’re caught tissue-less.
The flu vaccine doesn’t always prevent flu, so it’s not worth having
Truth and myth: Flu vaccines are produced in advance, so experts must predict the three or four flu strains that will be prevalent next winter. While you may catch an unexpected or rarer flu strain you’re not protected from, the vaccine will protect you from most strains you’ll encounter. It’s vital if you’re vulnerable or have low immunity, e.g. if you’re a carer, over 65, pregnant or have an existing medical condition.
Getting very wet and/or cold can give you a cold or the flu
Myth (obviously): However, cold and wet conditions can put your body under stress, making it more vulnerable to germs.
The flu vaccine gives you flu
Myth: The vaccine contains inactive viruses, but it may cause a temperature and aching for a while.
If you’ve had a cold or flu for a while, you need antibiotics
Myth: Your doctor may give in and prescribe them, although they know antibiotics don’t kill viruses. When a patient is ‘cured’ after a week’s antibiotics, in truth that extra week just allowed them to finally fight off their virus. Antibiotics are only useful if you get a secondary bacterial infection.
Can you treat a cold?
Research shows that prevention – i.e. good hygiene – is the best way to prevent a cold. So how can you do this?
Boost your immune system: to help you resist viruses or fight them off by reducing stress and getting adequate sleep. Regular zinc reduces the number of colds children get and should work for adults too. Regular probiotics and garlic may have some preventative effect, but research is sketchy.
Vitamin C and echinacea really don’t prevent colds and any symptom reduction is negligible. However, Vitamin C may be of limited benefit to people already under physical stress, such as long distrance runners.
Decongestants and antihistamines: when used separately, they have very little or no effect. However, when used together, particularly with painkillers, they may cause
a slight improvement in symptoms.
Ipratropium bromide (Rinatec) nasal spray: does seem to alleviate symptoms, particularly a runny nose.
Cough suppressants: Any benefits are negligible.
Vapour rubs: do seem to alleviate night time cough a little and improve sleep, but in studies over 25% of users reported burning itching sensation at the application area.
NSAIDs: (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, e.g. ibuprofen) can reduce fever and help with aches and pains.
If you have a cold or flu, stay hydrated, alleviate the symptoms and take heart – researchers are working to modify peptides that can combat cold viruses.