New year hangover or another cold?
Colds seem to hit us harder and lay us lower in the winter. Some scientists even think we're due another international flu pandemic. So what better time for Jim Pollard to quiz Professor Ron Eccles, the head of the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University?
The cold facts
Both colds and flu are viral infections. There are many types and they produce a range of conditions from the very mild to the life-threatening. Flu pandemics are caused by highly unstable type A viruses which keep reappearing in different strains.
Cold and flu viruses are usually caught by:
- breathing in infected water droplets in the air from someone else's sneezes or coughs or
- by touching the eyes or nose after hands have picked up the virus from contaminated objects like telephones, towels or door handles.
So wash your hands frequently and don't touch your face with your hand (use a serviette, tissue or hankerchief).
As we get older, our respiratory systems become weaker and colds and flu can be more serious.
So, Ron, have you found a cure for the common cold yet?
We already have a very good cure — the human immune system. It's a matter of trying to avoid the infections in the first place and then helping the immune system to control them if you catch one.
How do you avoid them?
The only guaranteed way is to avoid all human contact. Failing that, you need to keep your immune system in top form. You do that by maintaining your general health with exercise, rest and a balanced diet. Insufficient sleep will have a major impact as the immune system restores itself during sleep.
What about supplements?
I don't advise these in general. Having said that, zinc is very important to the immune system and as the main source of zinc is red meat and seafood, vegetarians may need to consider a zinc supplement.
A lot of people are into echinacea these days.
This does appear to be useful in influencing the immune system and they can control infection but it's not black and white when it comes to colds. The problem, as with many similar products, is standardisation. How much are you getting and of what? Is it the flower, the stem or the root? Is it an extract in water or alcohol? Bioforce are a quality supplier.
Vitamin C is an old favourite.
I wouldn't take it to prevent a cold. But at the very first sign of one, a couple of grams of vitamin C can be helpful. In that case it's working as an antioxidant.
What else can help?
The sort of substances we used to use to preserve food such as garlic and onion because they have natural antiviral properties. Garlic is nature's own antibiotic. A hot soup or hot curry can encourage mucus secretion. Mucus is the immune system's first line of defence so you want to get that going. Make sure you don't drink too much before the curry though as alcohol encourages nasal congestion. Take plenty of hot fluids, instead — the nasal mucus membranes need to be well hydrated to block infection effectively. Most of us don't take in enough fluids anyway.
Listen to your body. If it tells you you're tired, go to bed. Your immune system is asking for some help. Give it some.
My mum used to tell me to wrap up warm.
She was right. Keeping warm is very important. The viruses can only reproduce at 32 degrees C or below which is below human body temperature so if you keep your nose warm with a scarf or balaclava the virus can't replicate itself. A hot bath or sauna will work too.
What about this flu epidemic? Are we going to see one?
Cold viruses are fairly stable. Flu viruses develop new strains far more frequently which is why an epidemic is a risk. In the UK, flu levels are declining after a slight rise so I doubt if there will be any epidemic this season. But flu is like snow - unpredictable nine inches in some areas - and therefore it is difficult to prepare for adequately, especially since the last epidemic was 13 years ago.
I'd recommend a flu jab in September for anyone over 65 and for younger people who are at increased risk as a result of asthma, heart problems, diabetes or a less-effective immune systems. If you're fit and healthy it may be better to have flu — some people won't even notice. Flu ranges from the mild to the severe just like a cold.
I got a sinus infection after my last cold which was worse than the cold itself.
Yes, it's often the sequel to the common cold. You need to take an oral congestant containing pseudoephedrine but it's not suitable for everyone esepcially those with high blood pressure, or hypertension, so you need to discuss it with your doctor first. The herb Ma Huang — also known as dieter's tea — is natural source of ephedrine. (Editor's note: ephedrine also needs to be taken with care — in the US, high doses have been linked with dangerously heightened blood pressure.)
Menthol and eucalyptus vapours are helpful too — just a couple of drops in a bowl of boiling water. They're warming and have a mild antibacterial effect too. Very safe as long as you don't scald yourself.
What's the future of cold treatment?
We're moving into nutrition, looking at constituents in the diet that may influence the immune system. It started with zinc. There are possibly other trace elements too. We could see an immune system-boosting package of amino acids and fatty acids tailored to age. The trouble for the drug and food companies is creating something that is different enough to be patented.
Can't you just do it with diet?
In theory, yes but the vitamin C levels in orange juice, for example, go down very quickly. It's much better if you can find the active ingredient and provide that in effective doses. You don't want to have to eat a bucketful of X - much better to extract the active ingredient in X and provide it in a more friendly form. The bioavailability (how much of the supplement actually reaches the bloodstream) needs to be worked out through clinical trials.
Thanks to environmental health improvements, our water is better now and you can see from the amount of bottled water being sold how important it is to us. I think air could be the next revolution. For many years scientists have conducted research into technology that could disinfect the air of contaminants including bacteria and viruses. Sharps have now developed a system that can achieve this in a domestic appliance.
We are seeing an increase in autoimmune diseases. The immune system is like an army. If it's got nothing to do, it might start firing at random at minor problems, overreacting to things like the house dust mite. But the allergic reaction still need to be triggered and disinfecting the air can stop this happening.
Well, that's cleared the air. What's your favourite cold treatment? Let malehealth know.
Jim Pollard is editor of malehealth.
Page created on January 5th, 2004
Page updated on August 12th, 2010