Look after yourself
Studies have suggested that being active can help prevent respiratory infections, but cutting out smoking, reducing alcohol intake and keeping to a healthy diet also help. “Plenty of exercise, good nutrition – keep yourself fit and healthy – and that will keep your immune system strong,” says Peter Barlow, associate professor of immunology and infection at Edinburgh Napier University.
Get enough sleep
Sleep is critical for health, says Aric Prather, associate professor in psychiatry at University of California, San Francisco. In a study published in 2013, Prather and colleagues provided 164 individuals with sleep trackers and sleep diaries, exposed them to the common cold and then quarantined them in a hotel for monitoring. After taking into account factors including age, sex, smoking habits and alcohol consumption, the team found that sleep was a factor in who fell ill. “We found that people who get less than six hours of sleep on average are about four times more likely to get the cold than people who sleep more than seven hours,” says Prather.
Wash your hands
There are about 160 types of rhinovirus, which are behind the majority of common colds, says Barlow: “Anything you can do to avoid exposing yourself to that virus will reduce your chances of catching it.” He says many health agencies advise people to wash hands frequently with soap and water, to avoid touching nose, eyes and mouth with dirty hands, and to stay away from people who are sick.
Steer clear of children – if you can
Prof Mieke van Driel, head of primary care and general practice at the University of Queensland, says children get several colds a year because their immune systems are still developing – and they tend to pass the colds on. “Parents of young children are at higher risk than people who don’t get in touch with children a lot, and so staying away from them is probably a good thing.”
If you are sick, be mindful of others
Presenteeism is on the rise – but if you are oozing snot you may want to consider having a duvet day. “If you are constantly coughing and sneezing, it is probably a good idea not to be around other people, spreading the cold,” says Van Driel.
Save your cash
In a recent study, Van Driel and colleagues looked at whether there are any remedies that help with nasal symptoms. For many treatments, the results were inconclusive, but decongestants – either on their own, or with painkillers or antihistamines – appear to help adults. (For young children, nasal irrigation is better.) However, there is little evidence that many popular remedies, such as echinacea and vitamin C, can prevent or treat a cold – plus they can be expensive. “You might as well just take a hot toddy, or a hot lemon and a bit of honey,” says Van Driel. One medicine to avoid, she adds, are antibiotics, which “really don’t work”. Unnecessary prescription is one of the factors fuelling the current antibiotic-resistance crisis.
Remember you will get over it
“The immune system in a healthy person is perfectly capable of dealing with colds and most viruses,” says Van Driel. “The cold virus is a benign, self-limiting disease. It is annoying, but it is self-limiting.” She adds that we should have confidence in our bodies to manage pathogens – in the vast majority of cases, even if we do nothing, we will get better.