How to avoid the sneezing season

A dose of the sniffles is the last thing you need at the moment so here's...

Lisa Salmon

There's nothing worse than suffering from the sniffles during the Christmas social whirl.

As well as feeling ill, colds and flu make you miserable -- in fact, a recent survey by Kleenex Balsam found two thirds of people say they undergo an emotional transformation when they've got a cold, becoming ill-tempered, weepy or withdrawn.

TV psychologist Dr Jo Hemmings says: "When we come down with a cold -- often several times a year -- it plays on our emotions and makes us act and feel out of character.

"I know that I become more withdrawn from my friends and colleagues, preferring to hibernate in my bed rather than socialise."

It would be lovely to be able to avoid colds, flu and the misery they bring -- but is there really anything you can do?

If anyone knows, it's Ron Eccles, director of the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University. He explains that the only way to catch a cold is from another person, through coughed or sneezed droplets of mucus passed through the air or on fingers.


The virus may also survive briefly -- probably only hours -- on a surface the infected person's touched. "Colds aren't that contagious," says Prof Eccles. "You really need prolonged and close contact to catch one, and that's why most colds are caught at home.

"You can catch them at work or on public transport, but people snuggle up at home and spend hours in the house together and, of course, if somebody's got a cold, all the surfaces are likely to be covered with viruses."

It's impossible to completely avoid colds. For example, it's estimated that 20pc of passengers could catch a cold after travelling on a plane on which another passenger has the virus.

When you do succumb, over-the-counter painkillers like paracetamol, aspirin and ibuprofen are a good first treatment, as they'll control cold and flu symptoms like chills, fever, sore throats, headaches and sinus pain.

Hot drinks like honey and lemon or cordial will help to soothe sore throats and coughs, or you can buy convenient medicated hot drink sachets. But Prof Eccles points out that if you have a blocked nose, the best treatments are nasal sprays, which will open up the nasal passages for around 10 hours and aid sleep, which can be difficult with a blocked nose.

There are numerous myths and truths about how you catch colds and treat them, with one of the most well-known being that if you're not wrapped up warm on chilly, wet days, you'll catch a cold.

Prof Eccles says: "It's a controversial area, but I do believe that chilling brings on cold symptoms if you've already got the virus in the nose and throat. Chilling will weaken the defences in the nose and throat by causing the blood vessels to constrict. Not everyone accepts that, but if you look at the history of colds, it was taken as fact."

The Common Cold Centre carried out a study into the effect of chilling, by dipping the feet of 90 students in cold water and leaving a control group of another 90 students with warm, dry feet. There were far more colds in the chilled group than in the control group.

Prof Eccles says children playing in the snow, for example, isn't a problem because they're exercising and keeping warm. "It's when you sit down in cold, wet clothes and get a chill that there can be a problem. If you've been out in the snow, change out of your clothes and you'll be fine."

As for that other widely repeated adage of 'Feed a cold, starve a fever', Prof Eccles suggests it's simply a mispronunciation of 'Feed a cold to stave a fever': "That means when you've got a cold, look after yourself to make sure it doesn't get worse."

Other myths suggest the cold weather kills viruses, when in fact it cools the nose and throat, making a person more susceptible to catching a cold. This might explain why there are more colds around in winter, although other theories suggest it's linked to lower levels of vitamin D, which sunlight makes in the skin, or perhaps even that sunlight kills viruses.

And it could simply be because when it's colder, we spend more time indoors with other people, so viruses spread more easily.

"It's probably a mixture of all of those," says Eccles, "but I'm more in favour of it being linked to us not wrapping up our noses when we go out in the cold."