What are colds?
A cold is a contagious viral disease which infects the upper respiratory tract. There are more than two hundred viruses that can cause the common cold which is why people can catch colds again and again. Most people will catch a cold two to four times a year – and they are much more common during the winter months.
Common cold symptoms
The cold virus tends to attach itself to the soft, warm surfaces of the nose, throat and sinuses and hence, this is where the symptoms of the cold normally occur. The first symptom is often an irritation or soreness in the throat. However a large range of cold symptoms may be experienced.
The main symptoms of a cold in adults and older children are:
- a blocked nose
- runny nose
- feeling lethargic
- muscle pain
- sinus pain
Younger children and infants may experience other cold symptoms such as:
- problems feeding
- swollen glands
- being restless or uncomfortable
In most cases, symptoms of a common cold appear within one or two days of being infected by the virus and last for about a week.
How do you catch a cold?
Colds are at their most contagious during the first two to four days after the symptoms appear in someone affected, and he or she can stay contagious for up to three weeks.
Colds are spread by virus particles in the air which are disseminated by sneezing or coughing. However you may also catch a cold through close personal contact with someone or even through indirect contact with an infected person.
For example if a person with the common cold touches their nose or mouth, thousands of virus particles are transferred onto their skin. When they then touch an object such as a door handle or chair, they leave virus particles behind. The next person to touch the object will pick up the virus and become infected.
In the majority of cases, colds do not cause any major health problems. Although symptoms such as coughs or sore throats may be irritating and uncomfortable, with the common cold, symptoms do not tend to persist for more than one week. However, on rare occasions a cold can lead to complications.
In older children and adults colds may cause:
- inflammation of the sinuses
- a chest infection or pneumonia
- worsening of asthma
In younger children, middle ear infections are the most common complication of a cold and in the case of infants, a chest infection, pneumonia or croup may develop.
Common cold remedies
There are many different remedies for colds on the market – however there is no cure for the common cold.
- Antibiotics, which treat infections caused by bacteria, do not have any effect on cold viruses.
- If the cold is causing symptoms such as muscle pain, headaches or a sore throat, you can take pain killers such as ibuprofen or paracetamol to lesson any discomfort.
- Nasal sprays can help to clear a blocked nose
- Natural herbal cough remedies and tinctures may reduce any coughing fits.
- There are also a number of vitamin supplements which are popular in treating colds.
- Lastly, one of the most popular herbs to use is Echinacea. which helps the body fight the symptoms of the colds by strengthening the immune system.
Colds & flu explained
What is flu?
Although the common cold and flu share similar symptoms, they are quite different infections. Flu is caused by a specific group of viruses known as the influenza virus. However, there are a number of different strains, such as swine flu and avian flu (also known as bird flu), with more forming as the virus mutates.
This is why people continue to come down with the flu each year and that there is the need to renew the flu vaccination each winter. Symptoms of flu are usually more severe than with colds. Additional symptoms may also be experienced – fever, nausea, chills and sweats, headache, aching muscles and loss of appetite.
The flu virus can be spread from one person to the next from day one and before symptoms appear. Hence, it is possible to spread the flu before one notices symptoms.
Who catches colds and flu?
Anyone who is at risk from colds and flu and these infections can come at any time of the year. Usually peak season for these infections is during the autumn or winter months. There is often a small peak during early spring and one particular type of cold virus thrives in the summer.
Those with weaker immune function (due to illness, stress, lifestyle habits) are more likely to catch a cold or flu than the average healthy adult.
What is the immune system?
The immune system exists to protect our body against infection. It is made up of special blood cells, proteins, organs and other tissues – all designed to defend and support our body against invading organisms. Put another way, it is the army protecting the body against infection by viruses, bacteria and fungi, keeping us healthy and free from infections.
What if you have a weakened immune system?
Weak immune function makes it more difficult for the body to withstand infection, so an early sign of a weak immune system is a tendency for the body to pick up infections such as colds and flu.
This happens because a poorly functioning immune system can’t spot the nasty invaders efficiently. In addition, the immune system may also take longer to overcome bugs.
What to look out for
Colds are not usually considered to be serious illnesses and most people either ignore the problem or use home remedies to treat the condition. Only a small percentage of people UK visit their doctor for help with the common cold. If you are fit and have a healthy immune system, it is fine to manage the symptoms of colds or flu yourself. Many people use herbal remedies such as Echinacea to support their immune system.
However, there are some people who need to take extra care. Those suffering from asthma, bronchitis, or those with a weak immune system often need extra support and attention. The very young or the elderly may also find that their immune systems are not strong enough to fight off infections, so care must also be taken with this group of people. As with any illness, see your doctor if you are worried or in doubt.
If your immune system is working well
- You don’t fall prey to every bug around
- You throw off infections quite easily
- You aren’t constantly itching or sneezing
- You generally feel well
If you have a fully functional immune system, then when you are exposed to a bug, you should kick it out quickly and symptoms such as a raised temperature will not last for long.
Weak immune function makes it harder to withstand infection by viruses, bacteria or fungi.The immune system will take longer to detect and conquer the bug, so symptoms such as raised temperature, swollen glands, sore throat, etc., will be present more frequently.
Why might you have weak immune function?
- Eating a bad diet
- Eating lots of fatty foods
- Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol
- Being stressed and unhappy
- Not getting enough sleep
10 Tips to stay healthy and avoid colds & flu
- Wash your hands
Common cold and flu viruses spread by direct contact. Avoid people with colds or the flu like the plague – viruses spread from their hands to door handles, the telephone or the keyboard and can live for hours on these surfaces. The next person touching the same object will pick up these bugs, so wash your hands often or use alcohol-based hand sanitisers to prevent these viruses passing into your body.
- Use tissues and throw them away
These are great for preventing the spread of colds and flu, but remember that they can harbour viruses and contaminate any surface they come in contact with.
- Drink plenty fluid
Avoid becoming dehydrated – a typical healthy adult needs around 1.5 litres of water each day. Drinking water flushes out your system and helps keep your immune system strong.
- Control stress
It is well known that stress can weaken your immune system and may make you more likely to catch a cold than your calmer counterparts.
- Eat well
A diet rich in fruit and vegetables can help you avoid many health problems. Foods rich in vitamins A and C such as citrus fruit, dark blue and red berries, mangoes, apricots, carrots and beetroot support the immune system.
- Avoid alcohol
We know this seems boring, but drinking excessive amounts of alcohol is bad for immune cells, which become disorientated and confused…just like us!
- Get plenty fresh air
Avoid getting stuck in a room full of people with stale air. Find fresh air and breathe deeply. This helps the lymphatic system move protective immune cells around the body.
- Get more sleep
Achieving restful sleep each night (8 hours) helps the body repair itself and build the immune system. If you need help sleeping, see our tips on how you can sleep better.
- Avoid smoking
This is an irritant to the delicate tissues of your respiratory tract and increases your susceptibility to viruses that cause colds and flu.
- Keep warm
When you are feeling a bit vulnerable to infection, stay out of the cold night air and avoid the direct stream of air-conditioned air.
A cough is a reflex action that is caused by the stimulation of an irritated airway. When a person coughs, the larynx closes briefly. The chest and abdominal muscles then contract and air is forced out of the lungs when the larynx is reopened. The air released by a cough cleans out the airway of any irritants.
Coughing is a key part of the body’s defence mechanism as it purges the respiratory passages of dirt, dust or fluid which could cause problems to the lungs.
Types of Coughs
Coughs may be described as:
- A dry cough
- A chesty cough
A dry cough develops because of infection or inflammation of the throat and upper airway. As no fluid is produced, it is said to be non-productive or dry. The most common cause of a dry cough is the common cold or flu – the brain recognises the inflammation in the throat as a foreign object and tries to remove it through coughing.
A chesty cough brings up mucus produced from the airways, also known as phlegm. This fluid is produced because of infection or inflammation lower in the airways or because of the presence of bacteria. Chesty coughs can produce phlegm which is clear or white – or if green, indicates the presence of bacteria.
There are many different remedies on offer to help clear up a cough.
- One of the simplest cures is a homemade remedy containing honey and lemon. Honey coats the throat and relieves the irritation which causes coughing.
- Herbal remedies used to relieve coughs include Ivy, Thyme and Pine Shoots.
- There are people who prefer to use chemical medicines to suppress coughs – these are readily available from pharmacies and retail outlets.
- If a cough is persistent, your Health professional should be consulted as prescribed medication may be needed.
In all cases, remember that a cough is not a disease, it is a symptom. Therefore to clear up a cough permanently, the underlying cause of coughing (most often a viral or bacterial infection) must be treated.
Preventing a Cough
As there are so many causes for coughing, prevention of coughs lie with looking at the underlying problem.
To discuss this underlying problem go to your trusted local Health Store or Natural Health Professional
Monica van de Weerd